Apologies, dear reader, for the delay of this review post. I have been travelling. And I have discovered that short stories are the perfect genre choice for journeys with many stops. On my recent travels, I have been reading and re-reading An Tran’s short story collection, Meditations on the Mother Tongue (C&R Press, 2016). These twelve stories span the world, from Alaska to Vietnam, from caves to zoos. The collection is a symphony of imagery that will give you goose bumps. They are told through the voices of men, women, and children, young and old, Asian and Caucasian. More than once my breath caught while reading one of Tran’s stories; his prose can be simultaneously incisive and surreal as it lays bare what it means to be human.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from these stories, perhaps because they can be categorised into so many intersecting genres. The short works of fiction would fit just as well into a collection of Asian American Literature as they would in a collection of Buddhist Fiction. You might think that the intersection of Asian American Literature and Buddhist Fiction is ubiquitous across these kinds of literature, but it is not a given that any work of fiction by an Asian American author includes major Buddhist themes or characters. Many of Tran’s short stories include both, and others of his stories have neither, but still, resonate with vibrations of the Buddha dharma. Some of the short stories could be further sub-categorized as realistic fiction, suspense, mystery and even mythopoeia. But none of these categories fully encapsulates the insightful, engaging experience of reading Tran’s first collective offering.
The stories in Meditations on The Mother Tongue comprise a discourse on language and its centrality to human identity. Tran accomplishes this through brilliant characterization that positions his reader for deep listening. It’s as if he ushers you to the best seat in the concert hall based on the particular piece of music on the program. And of course, Tran has composed the music to be performed. Which is perhaps why his prose is so musical. For example, in the story “A Clear Sky Above” the young protagonist Teuku ventures into a cave and experiences this:
“Teuku is hypnotised by the music of the cave, the way it accompanies human speech. A voice emerges small and then bounces off cavern walls, splits into a chorus that comes from all around, its vibration like warm electricity on the skin. It is a reverent hymn, and he follows every word like a scripture” (p. 17).
Since this story is written from the third person point-of-view, the reader is able to venture into the cave with Teuku and is then immersed in this natural yet unique world through sound imagery. Tran interweaves the natural world with the human experiences of language and sound to remind his reader that language is universal.
In the short story “Conversations with the Rest of the World” a deaf girl named Lily learns to communicate with the world around her through sign language. As she is learning, she realises certain things about language, such as: “Reading and writing were conventions made for the hearing” (p. 63) and “silence was a punishment” (p. 66). And in an insightful moment in which Lily compares her mode of communication to those around her, she wonders how being human feels (p. 69).
The connection between language and humanness is further blurred when, some weeks later, Lily goes to the zoo with her teacher. There she sees gorillas signing to each other, and she leans over the rail to get a closer look.
Lily signed down, Hello, friends!
Frantically, the gorillas signed their responses, simple words and ideas that described their moods and desires.
Lily watched the fragmented conversations of the animals. She imagined a future life: Lily, the adult; Lily, the scientist; Lily, the bridge between humanity and the rest of the world . . . She imagined ripping away all the invisible railings in the world, all the barriers to speaking up. She saw herself filling up that moat with dirt, mud, soil, and all the richness of the earth.
In this story of a deaf girl who talks with a nonverbal gorilla, silence speaks volumes. Tran’s adept development and placement of characters in the natural world positions the reader to consider how – or why – language makes us human.
At this point, you may be wondering what, if anything, is Buddhist about any of the examples I have provided thus far? Based on the title of the short story collection, I posit that Tran uses his experience of Buddhism to interrogate the idea that language makes us human. Even if there is no mention of Buddhist concepts or teachings in the story, Tran’s narratives create a space for his reader to imagine human experience without words. This type of experience-without-language is like a samadhi meditation that opens up a “broad field of awareness” of being and knowing in non-discursive ways. (Keren Arbel, Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as Actualization and Insight. Routledge: New York, NY, 2017, p. 94). It’s a sweet irony, to be sure, that words can point to non-discursivity, like a finger pointing to the moon. But this is just one of the ways that Tran’s stories are meditations.
There is another, more overtly Buddhist way that Tran’s stories are meditations, and this relates directly to his mother tongue. He is a Vietnamese American, the son of refugees who fled to the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War. Buddhism is his birthright. His experience of growing up in a country foreign to his parents’ culture, and his experience of growing up with two languages, deeply influences his work (Anjali Enjeti, “Getting Lost in Language: An Tran On His Debut Collection, Meditations on the Mother Tongue” Brooklyn Magazine, 24 May 2017 http://www.bkmag.com/2017/05/24/an-tran-debut-collection-meditations-on-the-mother-tongue/ ). Tran’s stories are not the alienated, traumatic, situated testimonies of immigrants that are often associated with early Asian American Literature. Rather, his stories represent the experiences of later generations who are alienated from both their family’s cultural heritage and their birth country’s promises of freedom and prosperity. And for Tran, this cultural heritage includes Buddhism.
In my view, Tran’s best meditations on his mother tongue are comprised of stories in which the protagonist is Asian, for these protagonists position the reader to see cultures and worlds in tension. Take for example the first person point-of-view protagonist in “Once I Wed a White Woman.” In this story, an unnamed Asian (-American?) protagonist meets, courts, proposes to, and marries a white woman. As the reader is shown this developing relationship, we are privy to the protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. For example, after just meeting her in a bar, the protagonist and his future wife discuss jazz and he reflects: “She’d only named singers and I believed real jazz had no room for singers. Words were obstructions; music was to be heard, not listened to” (p. 119). This distinction between hearing and listening speaks directly to the way in which each of these culturally representative characters make meaning from their backgrounds, their contexts. The distinction made between hearing and listening is a theme throughout the story. Hearing is a non-discursive activity – the act of perceiving sound – but listening somehow requires transference of meaning, an act that implies and emphasizes a gap between self and other.
On the concept of self, the protagonist thinks thusly: “It is a delusion. We only exist through our relationships” (p.122). When his relationship with his white significant other progresses to cohabitation, he states “We took down my altar to Gautama Buddha . . . We put up framed pictures of ourselves” (p. 122). The process of “blending” his culture with his partner’s culture requires more compromise on his part, and he describes how he comes home to his “culture in a corner” quite insightfully when he states: “Westerners couldn’t look at a swastika without a sense of shame, and so I was supposed to feel this shame too. Shame for my own faith” (p. 123). The lingering colonialism that informed his relationship experience takes centre stage as the couple decides the wedding location; she wants the wedding to take place in a church. He says:
“Neither of us are Christian.” She said, “I just want a normal wedding” (p 123).
The protagonist tries to maintain a Buddhist viewpoint of his relationship: “I thanked her for releasing me from my own dogmas, but I didn’t know if I believed myself” (p. 123). If he only existed through his relationship to others, then his existence in relation to his partner is challenged even in their marriage ceremony.
The church was a small building with white walls. From the gutters at the edge of the roof hung ribbons of rust that settled into the paint, staining it in oranges and browns and ambers. The paint had cracked and formed fissures at the corners of all the door and window frames. I thought about the space between the cracks, how a house of God wore rivers of absence. . . A man in a black robe talked to us about togetherness and God and eternity. I stopped listening (p. 125).
Throughout the rest of the story, the protagonist makes attempts to be heard, to rescue his relationship by various means, including exposing his partner to Buddhist meditation, as if he is trying to teach his partner to hear as well as listen. Tran’s descriptions of altar Buddhas and meditation spaces are transportive, like the beginnings of a guided meditation that sets the mental stage for practice.
As a meditation on the mother tongue, this story, “Once I Wed a White Woman,” juxtaposes two cultures, east and west, Buddhist and Christian, through an exploration of the distinctions between hearing and listening. I cannot help but read the title of this short story and wonder if it is an allusion to the traditional opening to western folk tales beginning with “Once upon a time,” a phrase that serves as a verbal cue to begin listening. For the protagonist, this western folk tale phrase has displaced the traditional opening to Buddhist stories from sutras: “Thus have I heard.” In the tension between hearing and listening, this story provides a subtle and nuanced meditation on language, culture, contexts, and colonialism.
Regardless of what languages are represented in his stories, taken together, Tran’s meditations on the mother tongue form a discourse about how language shapes our experience of the world around us, and how non-discursive experience – being without words – can relieve suffering and open us to reality. Once again I am left appreciating the irony of how Tran’s stories can be read as a meditation on the benefits of not constantly creating stories, of experiencing life without reversion to mental narrating.