The basic premise of anyone’s creative work is dualistic. The writer writes because there is no other way. But a writer edits because he wants someone else to understand his sentiment, to become the avatar of even one single moment within his own life.
The experience of writing—and it is certainly an experience to write anything—brings its author closer to the totality of what it means to be alive. Through the very process comes a reanimation, a chance for rebirth into something more vivid and beautiful than the original event itself.
There are dangers with writing. Every experience is assessed according to the extent to which it can be used as fodder for a story or poem. As a ‘writer,’ you can’t do anything that isn’t ‘productive’ in some sense—because even near-death encounters—or especially near-death encounters—can be gazed upon as something luminous.
There is of course the choice of whether to include certain details, and of how to navigate through a swelling tide of descriptors and metaphors. But driving it all is an unquenchable fire of doubt—doubt of your own sensibilities, of your own memory, of your own judgment; of whether anything is ever worth being written about at all.
And this doubt turns out to be the one thing that stops you from writing too much, or for too long. It is the one thing, in truth, that brings you to write in the first place—to try and create something, to do more than just live. Because to just live is surely too plain; to just live is surely to experience the world as it is, not as it could be.
When living in China, I came to realize just how fickle human understanding could be. Xinjiang Province is one of China’s most complex cultural habitats, with urban-dwelling Uyghur and Han merchants brought into relief by the Kazakh and Mongol herders that dot the grassland periphery. I didn’t understand any of these individual cultures very well, but that didn’t stop me from making guesses and assumptions about each group’s behavior.
Most days, I would come back from my lunch break eager to start writing a new story based on some conversation I had just overheard. But those stories never made it into this collection because they were premature; one cannot write well about something one does not understand. Or, more accurately: one cannot write well about something unless one understands that one does not truly understand it.
Two months before I left China, my brother Huston and I were on a bus going from the provincial capital, Urumqi, to the ancient Uyghur city of Turpan. As I sat and read my book, I noticed that he had begun to have a pantomime conversation with a Uyghur man sitting in the row across from him. Since Huston didn’t speak any Chinese at all, I assumed that he was using body language simply because it was their only common denominator of communication.
When I tried to introduce myself using Chinese, I was shocked to find that this Uyghur man—my brother’s momentary intercultural sparring partner—was in fact deaf. Suddenly, Huston and I were in the same position, equally incapable of communicating with him.
And then I thought that there was really no difference between this conversation and any other conversation I had engaged in with any of my Chinese or Uyghur friends throughout my two years spent living in Asia. I had tricked myself into thinking that just because I could speak a language and use its common vocabulary to communicate, I had somehow acquired the keys to The World’s family automobile.
All of my time abroad can be condensed as one prolonged conversation with a deaf Uyghur. So, too, of the stories, essays, and poems collected here.