We All Need a “Midori”, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Kobayashi Midori is a prominent character in the novel, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. Well-known for his fantastical stories, the simplicity of this novel may surprise you at first but then you ease into it, only to finish it needing time to process what you’ve just read.

Luckily for me my friend, Carla, had recently finished reading the book and so I sent her a message on Facebook. Below are selected parts of the conversation because I’m trying to avoid spoilers.

Carla’s responses are in purple:

…the ending got me rolling. like Watanabe being disoriented but it gave a limbo impression. Like he just died and hadn’t realized it

“Midori was the BEST. Every book needs a Midori I knowwww that ending!!!!”

“EVERYONE NEEDS A MIDORI”

“I’m choosing to interpret it as momentary confusion because the alternative is too sad hahah it’s so true though!”

“yeah momentary confusion – i understand – BUT what would inflict that?”

“I kind of don’t want to know”

I DO! I’m a curious little shit


However, despite it being illogical for Toru to have died or be in limbo, the word choice for that sentence still leaves an unshakeable inference to limbo. Also, talking to Carla made me realize that Toru being alive was more profound considering the “curse” (I borrow the word “curse” from Carla) that seem to cling to his best friends, Kizuki and Naoko. It’s as if him being alive broke the cycle and I believe Midori helped him.

The novel begins with the protagonist, Watanabe Toru recalling his youth, stirred from listening to the Beatles song, Norwegian Wood. A bulk of the story takes place in the past, narrated by Toru, as he pursues a degree in Drama, encountering (as Carla puts it beautifully), “fantastical characters” who are complementary with the simplicity of the plot. I being 20, naively thought I would be able to relate but it was more of me being a spectator as events unfolded.

Focusing on the two leading female characters, the contrast between Midori and Naoko is like a black slate next to a white one, with a bit of gray in the middle. Naoko is kind, reserved, and  beautiful, but the way she is presented puts me off because she seems to be more of an idealization. Especially considering what happens from pages 173 – 174. I didn’t understand what I was reading so I wrote a question mark on a post-it just so I could come back to it. Re-reading those pages again, it’s as if Naoko is elevated to the level of divinity-

After googling moon goddesses, I read about Selene, the Greek moon goddess, and her relationship with Endymion for the first time. I think the myth might have inspired this scene considering both include the moon as a dominant element, Toru is in this dream-like state and is in complete awe of Naoko’s seemingly flawless body. So we’ve got the moon, sleep/dreams, and the interaction between a mortal and a seemingly divine being in common. I feel I might be on the right track but I’m not going to settle for this reference. What other myths or interpretations could there be? What’s the function of this? Maybe a subtle way of foreshadowing that they were never going to be together since Toru may be awake in contrast to Endymion who is asleep…

Our faces were no more than ten inches apart, but she was light years away from me (p.172)

Midori, on the other hand, is weird, loud, and has no shame. When I’d read her rants, I’d feel so drawn to her, laugh, and would think how I would love to meet a person like her. You come upon her opinions, criticisms, kinks, humor, and grow to appreciate the development of her friendship with Toru. The following is one of my favorites and presents their friendship nicely:

Midori laughed out loud. “You’re so weird! Nobody talks about Euripides with a dying  person they’ve just met!”

“Well, nobody, sits in front of her father’s memorial portrait with her legs spread, either!” (p.303)

Where is the shame with this one?

Shamelessly entertained by Midori’s rants whilst wanting to hug her for acting strong despite the amount of loss she endures, Carla helped me realize that Midori serves a higher purpose than entertainment and tugging on heartstrings. Our discussion developed into the possibility of her helping Toru readjust to reality and staying alive.

Reiko is another interesting character. I love how she is described in the book, especially the details of her wrinkles. Growing up in a society that seemingly rejects the aging process, the portrayal of her wrinkles as a form of beauty puts me in awe. Despite Reiko seemingly taking on the parent role to Toru, talented, caring, and an amazing support system to Naoko, what happens with the 13 year old and later with Toru leaves me conflicted.

However minimal, the comic relief offered by Storm Trooper and Midori is highlighted because this is such a melancholic book filled with death and pain from unrequited love. One more thing I’d like to point out is that there appears to be various transitions that take place. The most relatable one was Toru’s transition from Ami Hostel back to the city, where all the noise and vulgarity returns. From the unnatural quietness of Ami Hostel to the noisy urban space, I felt that spaces like Toru’s dorm room and Midori’s home offered a delicate inbetweeness. Something you come to appreciate if you regularly migrate between a noise fest and a place too quiet for comfort.


I actually bought this book a couple of years ago and finally got a chance to read it. I’m not sure what drew younger me to it but I’m glad I bought it. I’m super glad I read it now because I don’t think I would have appreciated it had I read it earlier.

Presently, I’m reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom.

-MS-

 

 

 

 

 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Yes it did.

Happy New Year to you all! May your survival game be stronger this year!

Anne Fadiman’s novel, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, was the last book I read in 2016. I found it at a thrift store near my university for less than a dollar fifty, still in great condition. At first reading it seemed like giving myself extra course work because it wasn’t hard to imagine this book being assigned to students. But I’m genuinely interested in learning about different cultures, reading sociological and anthropological narratives,and the book had such an appealing price

What actually won me over was “A Hmong Child” printed on the book’s cover. In all my life I had never consolidated the word Hmong in my head. It was a ridiculous realization and eradicated any hesitation to read this book. The other fascinating thing is that it combined Medicine and Cultural Studies and so I was extra certain this book was going to be a learning experience.

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My copy of the novel/ me planing out this blog post

Essentially, the book narrates the struggles the Lee family faces when they migrate to Merced, America, where their beloved child Lia falls sick. The struggles and the conflicts that come after make you sympathetic and frustrated. Additionally, the author smoothly integrates Hmong historical and cultural context (reading this novel was way more efficient than scrambling on the internet) that provides further understanding of their rituals, beliefs, migratory pushes, just to name a few.

I recall feeling a wide range of emotions with this novel. For one, frustration, especially at instances when the doctors would talk to Lia’s parents without a translator, when the Hmong Parenting style explained in the book was deemed abusive by the dominant culture, and the general sense of how the Americans reacted to the Hmong immigrants (what I read didn’t surprise me). Honestly, I feel that America would be the one who has a fit every time a new person sits at the lunch table, especially after reading the list of foreign settlers in the Central Valley and how each had difficulties settling down.

To be honest, the rumors The Hmong and Americans spread about each other were amusing, I rolled my eyes when reading the “Dumb Hmong Stories” (page 226), and was mortified when reading the acts of violence against the Hmong instigated by welfare. Only to be surprised with this:

Although on the battlefield the Hmong were known more for their fierceness than for their *long livers, in the United States many were too proud to lower themselves to the level of the petty criminals they encountered, or even to admit they had been victims – page 193

(Long Livers referring to the Hmong saying “Ua siab ntev” that describes one being patient and enduring suffering and wrong doings)

The author acknowledges the pressure on the receiving side but how does being hostile help? Do you just dub it human nature? How do you expect them to find jobs when the skills they have and value doesn’t align with paid jobs? However, the Hmong do settle down (I say this loosely) and try to get use to the system with help of clan members and brilliantly thought out loop holes.

Another point this book pushes forward is the lack of cross-cultural understanding within Western medicine. The conflict and the tension between the doctors and Hmong patients exemplify this: The cases Anne Fadiman provides in chapter 18 and ,an unforgettable moment for me, the chapter “Code X”, when Lia responds to the traditional medicine despite prior events. I found myself relieved, whispering that it was a miracle.

But now, I feel uneasy calling it a miracle.

Around this point in time, Lia’s health deteriorated so much that any mistake could cost her life and then her father, Nao Kao, springs into action, and I’m just there confused whether to root for him or not because of the fragile disposition of his daughter. Despite it all, Lia is alive by the end of the chapter.

On the surface, it seems miraculous but what holds me back is that labeling this miraculous seemingly strips away the legitimacy of the traditional medicine. In other words, that the herbs the parents use seem to become this fantastical element rather than genuine medicine. Excuse me, I may be over-analyzing but think about it whenever you read about someone drinking a homemade remedy and they claim to feel better – doesn’t your mind automatically label it as a miracle rather than medicine?

Which brings me to my issue with the dominant nature of Western Medicine. I’m in no way criticizing it’s advances in Medicine but the rhetoric it seems to carry is that there isn’t much space for legitimizing other forms of healing, i.e. the Hmong practices. This is a fairly recent secret opinion but I felt kind of reassured when I spoke to my professor when we were discussing the memoir Paper Sons and Daughters by Ufreida Ho, inspired by the author calling her grandmother’s remedies “hocus pocus”. The main idea of that conversation was the act of healing the body stems from centuries ago and from many cultures, but only Western Medicine seems to get the credit and everything else is labelled “hocus pocus”.

I feel I need to say this, I’m in no way saying you should drink green tea if your arm is cut off either. Because another thing The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down presents is the belief system that comes with their healing processes. Not a sliver of doubt is presented among The Hmong when they use their own medicine and I think that adds to my fascination with belief. Moreover, there is also compromise.Towards the end of the book, Anne Fadiman dedicates pages to initiatives that promote a more cross-cultural and compromising perspective for Medicine which is optimistic since this book  was published in 1997.

However, the one thing I didn’t really grasp was why the author ended it with the “Sacrifice” chapter. It was a very ambiguous ending. I’d like to believe that the ceremony helped Lia. What confuses me is that the author had been indirectly building up on how legitimate the Hmong healing methods were but ends the novel on a note that gives a contradictory impression.

I think this book is well-written, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in cultures or loves learning in general. To borrow the title and to expand on what I meant by “Yes it did”, It took me roughly six months to read this book .Blame my packed semester and my lack of time management. Despite that, I’m proud of myself for not giving up on it.

I’m currently reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

I hope this year will not leave me or you crawling out of it by December

Happy New Year!

-MS-

Classical Literature within the Lebanese Context

My group and I’s main topic was to focus on the recurring genres or literary works within a specific generation , a group of 5 years based on the year of graduation. I chose to focus from 2010-2015. The following post will be divided into the following sections: Trying my luck with Palladio, Main Finding, Conclusion, Limitations, Improvements, and Reflection.

 Trying my luck with Palladio

Palladio allows the user to choose multiple fields using the same data and can display information in different ways. My two most used modes where the table and the graph. The graph constructs networks out of dot and lines, similar to constellations, except you can see them clearly anytime of the day.

Playing around with the Palladio revealed to me the following findings:

-The novel genre is quite popular and stirred up various emotions.

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-Looking at fiction, the emotion “paranoid”caught my eye, bringing to my attention that  I weakly associate the feeling of paranoia with fiction.Paranoid 2016-12-04 at 2.56.51 PM.png

So I went back to the excel sheet and discovered it was 1984 by George Orwell that was the culprit. Makes sense.

-Speaking of 1984, on it’s own, the novel derived a wide range of emotions and is one of the most popular books according to the data.

-Boredom was one of the most prevalent emotions according to the data-

Wait a minute

Not all books will move you or have you reading until dawn but I couldn’t help but see what books were causing those who belonged to this generation bored. Referring to the networks, various titles (Anna Karenina, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc) are linked to the emotion boredom and these books all have a particular genre in common: they are all classics.

Main Finding

Prior this project, I knew reading Western classical literature was not far-fetched within high schools and the network strengthens this claim since the genre “Classic” appears  linked to ST (school time), meaning classics were mostly read when it was assigned to students(there are two exceptions).

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Narrowing it down, it was found that boredom was a common emotion linking the classics.

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I think one of the contributing factors of why boredom is highly affiliated with classical literature is the type of language. The language used tends to be bulky and written in an “older English”. Also, slang is minimal or perhaps very different from our modern day colloquy. In other words, the English language continuously changes and so it becomes more difficult to read older text. I recall struggling with 1984 at the beginning because I wasn’t accustomed to George Orwell’s writing style. I also think some classics fall under the risk of dragging on and if the reader isn’t engaged, the person is likely to drop the novel before the climax.

For further understanding I called up two people I had interviewed in the beginning. LS confirmed that western classical literature was taught throughout her senior year and supported my finding by claiming boredom. She elaborated by saying that although different books were covered, the teacher would use a similar method of analyzing each text. Moreover, the repetition or similarity of themes and morals of the books contributed to her boredom.

MY: What would you do to make it more interesting?

LS: Change the teaching method

Turns out LS’s sister, NS, is currently a senior at the same high school and new books have been added to the literature curriculum. However, after describing the teaching method and the class dynamic, LS confirmed that there wasn’t much of a difference .

Furthermore, in regards to the analysis, NS commented that they, the students, weren’t expected to contribute to  the discussion. She might have been joking but it is probably one of the contributing factors to the lecture style of teaching these works.

I called another person I had interviewed but couldn’t input his data because Google Maps couldn’t give me his high school’s coordinates. Although he was taught Armenian Literature, the same issue occurred. His boredom stemmed from the lack of diversity in authors despite taking different works. Also, There wasn’t much room for students to deliver their inputs since it was lecture based.

MY: What would you do to make it more interesting?

VM: Contextualize a lot more. Talk about the moment in time these people were writing and why specifically they became canon in Armenian Literature. Not simply say theye are and stop there.

I also asked in their opinion, why they think these books stay within academia, and both gave me different answers. One said that its linked to the school’s prestige. I didn’t refute this because prestige is considered important in Lebanese society.

The other said it was because these works are canon and that for one to be well-versed in literature, these works still need to be studied, especially works written by those who contributed to elevating the importance of this field.

Which reasoning do you agree with? Both maybe?

Conclusion

Based on the data and the networks, classical literature is usually read when it is assigned to students. Though this ensures that these works remain in canon, those who graduated from the year 2010-2015 seem to leave high school remembering how bored they were in class more than the morals these books supposedly teach. Based on the two phone interviews, it seems the repetitive method of teaching and lack of encouraged involvement may be contributing to the prevalent feeling of boredom when reading the classics.

Limitations

  • Although it provides a direction, my data is not very representative. I only interviewed one person from an older generation and I didn’t interview anyone from public schools.
  • Anomalies: Palladio and Carto are quite sensitive. For Example, Palladio differentiates Anomalie 2016-12-04 at 2.51.20 PM.pngthe same word if it’s entered beginning with a small letter or with a capital letter.
  • I didn’t attend high school here and so I have to rely on other people’s high school experience, which subjects my results to bias or to constructed memory.
  • More phone interviews in regards to classical literature should have been carried out.
  • I was unable to gain the perspective of an English high school teacher.

Improvements

Since this project will likely continue next semester for a new group of students, I suggest the following improvements:

  • Just as how ensuring one group member is familiar with WordPress to help others who aren’t, perhaps one person in each group should be appointed to enter the data. That will minimize the variations of text from 20 different possible people to a maximum of six (if you were to keep the size of the groups the same.) It doesn’t sound like an attractive position, so maybe you could have the student’s name randomly generated.
  • Considering the criteria we had to fill, I think asking the interviewees the name of the general area of their high school would be helpful because Google maps doesn’t provide the coordinates for some schools in Lebanon. At least, a general location would be provided and it could help validate the coordinates provided or help us realize that the coordinates on Google/Carto maps are way off.
  • Make space for a re-interviewing stage. Based on my experience, this helped provide more insight.

Reflection

This project demonstrates the canonicity of Western classical literature within Lebanese high school academia. It is understandable since authors like Shakespeare contributed to the growth of literature but I’m left wondering which writers or poets pushed forward Lebanese literature or literature within Lebanon.

It’s beneficial to teach Western Literature but based on the data not much space is provided for works written by Lebanese writers within private schools, making it harder to deduce what work of literature written by a Lebanese or culture-specific to Lebanon would be considered canon. However, based on the data, Khalil Gibran’s work is mentioned and so if I where to vouch for any author it would be him.

My main finding illustrates that canonicity doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is well liked or guaranteed proper integration when passed onto the next generation. It seems how these works are taught needs to be improved to ensure the coming generations actually understand the value of these works. Additionally, I think finding ways to make the content relatable to high school students could help with them engage with the classics. For example, use 1984 as a way to talk about constant surveillance as a similarity between the book and their lives. Of course, finding a link is not a guaranteed possibility for all works of Classical literature but it doesn’t hurt to try. Minimum, students should be encouraged to participate rather than spoon fed the teachings of these works.

Frankly, students shouldn’t have to wait to be in a university classroom to be able to engage with literature.

-MS-


Questions:

  1. Based on your personal experience, if you found yourself dozing off midway a classic, why so?
  2. Other than the reasons mentioned, can you think of another reason why western classical literature remains in high school academia?
  3. If you were to add a non-classic literary work to a literature curriculum what would it be? Why?

(you can answer as many as you like below in the comments)