Friday, March 30, 2012

Joan, Adrienne, Marg, c. 1976

So long age, this image, from the mid 70s when we were in Washington, once again, to protest this time, America's intervention in Central America. And there with her head turned, is Adrienne Rich standing next to an old friend from The Gay Women's Alternative, Marge Barton. Deb must have taken this image; it is one of the first times we marched under the name of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in a non lesbian, non gay, demonstration. We were friends then, Adrienne and Michelle being very early  supporters of LHA, neighbors on the Upper West Side.

It is a warm late night here on Fitzgibbon Avenue, so far from that Broadway, so far from those early years of the lesbian-feminist movement and the gay liberation movement, not always the same thing, far away and yet I can see some of it so clearly. I remember the times Adrienne, already a famous poet, came back to the old WomenBooks to read, the word of her presence spilling out into Upper West Side streets, where we all were still renters and community dreams were possiblele. Deb and I trying to find a parking place that night and seeing an endless line of women mostly stretching down West End Avenue, trying to get one more inch of space to hear the poet read. Michelle and Adrienne, Audre, Blanch and Clare, at parties with all kinds of flirting going on, all kinds of thinking going on, books in the planning, books happening. We disagreed on things, Adrienne and I, but she listened and was always gracious with her letters of support. I feared her a little. Our lives had been so different and then in the 70s and 80s we were in shared territory. I am not saying what I mean; identity politics is not a problem- free thing, the demand communities make for experiential purity  can enforce silences. What I feel most now is love for this community of women, poets and writers and thinkers who "overstepped their bounds," in the most magnificent of ways. Adrienne always having to answer the charge that her poetry suffered because she was too polemical while she and Audre gave life to so many, gave life to their art in an America that officially did not know what to do with their visions, but oh, how they filled our hearts and gave strength to our refusals and hope to our dreams of change.

I see the small dark woman carrying her shopping on Broadway,  walking never easy, I see Michelle and Adrienne having dinner at 215, bringing a signed print for this new thing called the Lesbian Herstory Archives, I see Adrienne taking notes, working in the small room of the young LHA, at the lesbian made table, gathering material for her book, "Of  Women Born," and I quietly  bringing her cups of tea, I hear Adrienne's voice, over the phone, asking me if she should speak at the Take Back the Night Rally at Times Square, knowing I would say no and feeling almost breathless that she had called to ask. Arguments about sex and power divided us, I think I can say, and for many years we had not spoken, and then when I wrote a piece, "Thinking in a Time of War," for the Journal of Women's History in their 2003 edition dedicated to Rich's essay hugely influential "Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980) about my mixed feelings about the essay, I asked the editors to send a copy to Adrienne because I had used personal moments and wanted to make sure I had not done wrong. Once again, she was gracious in her response. Those were the last words exchanged between us. This poet whom we need now more then ever will live and live and live.

"Before I end, I want to say one more thing. Over the years, I have read savage reviews of Rich's poetry, reviews attacking her for being too polemical. Adrienne Rich has put her whole literary reputation in danger because she has ideas about injustices of all kinds and they inform her creative work. For the risks she has taken in this country of so-called free speech, where the disdain of the establishment, literary and otherwise, can crush a writer's spirit, I will always honor her."

It is the time of our lives I mourn for, when in full voice and wanting body, we tryed to change what the word "women" meant, with fierceness and tenderness we covered miles of possibilities together.

A young girl's poem from the time of the Tang dynasty:

"In the pavilion of separation. the leaves suddenly blew away.
On the road to farewell, the clouds lifted all of a sudden.
Ah! How I regret that [women] are not like the wild geese
Who go on their way together."

New Capitalisms and the Problem of Memory--What the People of Beijing Made Me Think About

I feel so much pressing on me, to write my small words about--racism in America, the new campaigns in Israel to make shared lives of Palestinians and Israelis possible and life here in Melbourne with my Professoressa far away in Washington, D.C. and then she will be in New York and I miss the woman and the city deeply--but still I find myself wanting to give you more of our Beijing time, the overwhelming challenges of this city of 28 million, where the memory is a tender thing as apartment blocks reach to the heavens and march from horizon to horizon. The people will be moved up and up, and I am sure the conditions will be better but other longings make themselves seen in the streets.
The Helpers to the Ming Dynasty
A Soldiers Barracks on the Great Wall, 60 k from the outer limits of Beijing and hundreds of years old

The Walk into History

Not of Walls but still an Ancient Hunger

Deena, our guide to the Great Wall and the Summer Palace, a thin Manchurian Chinese hard working and caring woman, said as she led us down the processional path to the tombs of the Ming Emperors, past the camels, horses, elephants, sitting and standing, all prepared to carry the sacred leader to the next world, larger then life, "tourists often ask me, where are all the birds?" and here she smiled, "I tell them," she said rubbing her nonexistent belly, "that they are in here. We have to eat every thing we can." Half a joke.

Smiling in anticipation of his service

Old Favorites of Beijing

I will stop here for now, with the candied sweets of Beijing, because I have received the news that Adrienne Rich has died and my heart is heavy, my own memories of the shared times, the streets we walked together and sometimes passed each other, of Michelle and Blanche, now push at me as so many begin coming to turns with Adrienne's death and once again turn to her words, her art.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

No. 5 Dengcao Lane, Dongsi South Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing, in Homage to the Work of Zhang Xiaoping--"Tales of Old Beijing: The Daily Life in Alleys" (China Intercontinental Press, 2009)

Not the photographs of the folk photographer Zang Xiaoping, but ours, and only late in our trip did we find his wonderful book, that archives other alley ways then the one you see here, that archives the communities that flourished in these narrow but vibrant worlds.
"People from different times have different memories and the memories were getting faint faint by time. However, only memory could make moment to eternity...the past becomes history, becomes the footprint of the development of history and society. Beijing yesterday, already left in the memory of the people, becomes a kind of color, a symbol, a miss." from the Preface, by Luo Fei, January 11, 2009
March 4, 2012
I have traveled in this book, my black book journal--London, Paris, New York, back to London, Melbourne and then a year later, Beijing. My legs aching, but still we go on. Sitting in the one room of our hotel, in our hutong, the Beijing name for the old streets off the main avenues, where life goes on as it has for so many years, but perhaps for not much longer,

where the old doorways are decorated with symbols for good things, and a curtain is drawn over domestic life. We stay at the Beijing Sihe Courtyard Hotel, once the home of a famous Beijing artist, whose neighbor is a community recycling storefront.
Our room, protected from the biting cold by the red quilt that does its job well

Some of the furniture, we are told, is very old, the bed with the orange canopy, the old desk so worn, stained by the carelessness of visitors like ourselves.
From my journal: I had to go outside to write in the courtyard, still late winter touched. I like the old wooden buildings around me edged in red; somehow Beijing does not feel foreign to me, as if the longer we stay in the hutong, this old alleyway where dusty bikes and small wheeled vehicles of all kinds carrying the trades of their riders, the recyclers, the shoppers, the chess and card players, make me hug the walls of its doomed homes, could slowly transform me into that image of a "granny,"captured by the photographer with the words,"Grannies who live in the alleys usually do not go into the main streets, so they are unfamiliar with what happened outside. Even if they come out, they just go shopping at groceries and go back immediately, or they would like to stand at their doorway to feel the change of the world." (p. 180) A granny, shuffling but persistent, looking out at the life that flows into the alley way, the life that has flowed for over 800 years, and "there are traces of each era" in the stones and earth of these persistent paths says the photograph, passionate about their importance, the need to preserve them, but the powers of the new capitalism work against the old stones and 200 year old trees. He photographs the Chinese character that means "to pull down," that is painted on the walls of the old houses and tells us: "The buildings of ancient Beijing with a history of many 100s years are moved away by migrant workers with handcarts...citizens of old Beijing silently watch their loved houses leveled to the ground. They watched the property left by forefathers disappear in thier hands and turned into the number in banks." (p. 115)  "Alley," we are told by the photographer, means "well" in Mongolian, the source of water, of life.
Under the image of an old man, Zhang Xiaoping writes, "If there is room for him in the alleys, he could survive honorably. Nothing would stop the men of Beijing. After retirement, they would sell flowers, birds, and fish from a wheelbarrow." The hook on the top of this cage allows it to be hung in tea houses and on trees in the country, so old men can carry their song birds with them and discuss their charms with old friends. In the transhistorical Tea House of Lao She's famous play, the characters appear with their bird cages, ready to hang them from the rafters, hoping their songs will survive the end of dynasties and the beginnings of new ones.
Our hutong at night, the old red lanterns marking the entrance to our hotel and the blue window of the television marking modernity.

From my journal: March 23, 2012: Our first night in our hotel, down the alley way, past wooden doors marked by red good luck images, past the district's health clinic, small stores that are part of the families' living room, past a recycling store front where on Sunday a large happy seeming group of men and women, all in old warm stained coats, laughing slap cards down with great vigor on an upturned barrel while other comrades play a game of Chinese chess, pondering the next move of the large brown clay discs with white writing, while all around the gathering plastic bottles and large squares of cardboard spill out of carefully organized sacks. Spitting and laughing, with some one's flock of pigeons circling above our heads, the swirling red banners making their siren like noise to remind the flock where home is.

Monday morning in the hutong--pulled by their black-jacketed hard working owners, the vegetable flatbeds arrive, greens neatly piled on the wooden slab, in this cold gray morning, the only bit of vivid color. The women make their selection amidst the debris of the alley, debris that will quickly disappear into the recycling sacks. Behind the worn wooden doors and the gate piers, the homes are protected from dust and floods, we get only glimpses of the full life of our neighbors--we have come to expect the old couple to walk their two small dogs in the early evening, followed by a solitary fellow with his small white dog, small dogs, their size almost begging passersby to overlook them. The owners of the cars parked outside their front doors have placed slabs of old Beijing stone in front of the tires that face the hutong, protecting their prize possession from the ravages of the dog's daily walks. We get a sense of of one of the tensions of our hutong. Another is made clear by government posters with a police official's face prominently displayed announcing that all people living in the alley must be registered with authorities and no one can be added to the list. How many people live behind the wooden doors we do not know, but clearly all must be accounted for.

Today as we turned once again from the groovy main street filled with stores selling fashionable clothes and offering the newest in haircuts, into our ally, I looked longer at the Community Health Center sign to discover that this four story square 50s style building is also the district's hospice. I thought what it would be like to take your last breaths looking out over the narrow but full of life hutong, with its public toilets, its few shops selling diet coke, sweets and mops, the ruddy complexioned recycling gang, teasing each other, its smells and sounds and always the through traffic of every things on wheels that can carry or pull. A productive place as best it can be, a bit of Beijing life, not big or global or corporate, a bit of the old and persistent with smiles and Ni Hos for the foreigners in their midst. Today as we walked around the bend in the alley, heading home, we saw a group of young nurses, in the whitest things we have seen in the alley, their uniforms clean and sharp, their lunch boxes by their sides, smiling young women going to their jobs in the hospice. As I write this now in my late night study in West Brunswick, I realize that those women, swinging down the road, arms joined, seem like the daughters of the those young and strong women portrayed in the Red Guard ballet we saw, competent and eager to take on history.  Perhaps not such a bad place to take leave from this bit of the world known as Beijing. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Beijing, 2012: In Memory of Lao She, 1899-1966

Alone in his joy, an older man uses water on dust to write his favorite text, and as the strokes create meaning, the cold air takes back the words, leaving the paving stones bare. On the grounds of the Summer Palace
For the first few days of our journey in Beijing, the skies were low and gray, the cloud of pollution we had seen from the plane hanging low over the city on the plain. A vast meeting was taking place of the CPPCC, people's delegates from all over China meeting in the People's Hall to present their concerns to the CP leaders. Every time we entered our hotel, the second one of our stay, we went through security machines and were patted down by women security guards.
Political artifacts for sale.On the gray stones of Panjiayuan Folk Culture Market, memories of old China, moments of domestic life, shards of the past, were spread at our feet.

Like the wet characters of the old man, the present seemed to be turning into the past and the present into the future before our eyes. And the past spoke of broken hearts and massive dreams of a people's hope.

On International Women's Day, we secured tickets to a special performance of the famous 1970 ballet, the first in the new China, about the involvement of women in the Revolution, in the Red Guard. The ungrand theater filled first with school children, their teachers, their parents and then older people, some "grannies" like myself, many young couples. When the chorus sang, so did the audience, the old hope thick in their voices and when the young woman who is at the heart of the ballet, seen as little more then a slave before she joins the Women's Regiment, pulls the folds of the Communist flag to her heart, I wept with the people around me, so palpable was the presence of their country's dreaming.

On our first day, we left our hutong courtyard hotel--the hutongs are the old alleyways of Beijing where people have lived for hundreds of years, they too are disappearing in Beijing's modernizing rush--to walk to  one of the walls of the Forbidden Palace but when I looked at the map, I saw a marking for the Lao She Museum, Lao She, a Manchurian- Chinese writer it said in our small guide book and a little more. My first day in this vast city, trying to make sense of things or to accept not understanding what I was seeing and just look into faces and down streets, dodging traffic of all kinds. We walked and walked, and then as if his hand or the hand of his wife or supporters, had reached out and turned our footsteps into their history, we found ourselves at the entrance of Fuqiang Lane with a small blue sign, "Lao She Memorial Museum" barely visible on the worn wall. A little way down the alley, was the entrance to what had been the home of this Brecht -like writer, a courtyard home, where separate buildings fulfilled the different needs of the family--now all the rooms sites of Lao She's creative, personal and national life with one room dedicated to the work of his wife, Hu Jieqing, who became a recognized painter later in her life and outlived her husband by many years.

Lao She, I had read in another book, had lived in hope of all the good that would come from the success of the establishment of the People's Republic of China. He had organized Chinese writers in 1937 into the "Anti-Japanese Association of National and Literary Art Circles of China," leaving behind his wife and children to bring hope to writers and their readers throughout the 8 years of occupation. This information and the following comes from a 32 page booklet we bought at the doorway of one of the old rooms--where an elderly man looked up from his thermos of tea and thanked us over and over not for buying the Chinese-English booklet, I think, but for our interest in this great modern Chinese writer who is seldom talked about in public because his death is to hard to fit into the present Chinese take on its own history. We read that in 1924, after being a teacher for many years, Lao She was hired by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London to teach Chinese. Immediately I thought of the five months Di had spent teaching in those same halls last year and again felt the push of meeting that had to be. We entered the old courtyard with the blooming persimmon tree that Hu Jieqing had painted so many times and a middle aged woman, dressed in a white smock, like a doctor's coat, came to nod, Ni Hao. She helped me over tall lintels that protected so many of the old rooms whether in palaces or ally ways from flooding and I am back in an archives. Carefully preserved are the desks, brushes, letters, books, translations, photographs, pipes, international editions of his most famous works, the novel "Camel Xiangzi," (The Rickshaw Boy),1936, and the play, "The Tea House," (1957). Nothing fancy here, no modern archival techniques but the touch of love is felt, the refusal to accept silence about this man, this writer who like his beloved Dickens, feared for the survival of the everyday person under the pressure of the vast historical challenges that swept through China in the 20th century. The rooms were low ceilinged, the gray of the out side penetrating the spaces; old wooden cabinets housed the writer's relics but in my heart I keep thinking of Lao She's fate--"The 'Cultural Revolution' broke out in 1966. A sick Lao She was beaten and humiliated in public  on August 23. On the morning of the next day, he left home and spent the last day of his life by the Taiping Lake in the northwest of Beijing. When the night befell, he threw himself into the lake..."(p.20, Lao She Memorial Booklet)  All his creative life had been in the service of the motherland, in the best way he knew--to be honest about the degradations of the human spirit brought about by political and economic corruption, he had been a devoted believer in the Revolution and the need for change, over 9 million words poured from his pen into all literary forms, words that took on history and in the end, this writer like so many others in other parts of the world was not allowed to live. Yes, we saw the Forbidden City and the Great Wall but all for me through the eyes of this small bespectacled man and the gatherings of everyday people in the parks, in the squares, on long lines, finding joy under an often leaden sky.

Moments of Lao She, from "Camel Xiangzi," 1936

"Though hardly twenty, he was tall and robust. Time had  not yet molded his body into any set form but he already looked like a full-grown man--a man with an ingenious face and a hint of mischief about him.Watching those high-class pullers, he planned how to tighten his belt to show off his sturdy chest and straight back to better advantage. He craned his neck to look at his shoulders; how impressively broad they were! His slender waist, baggy white trousers and ankles bound with thin black bands would set off his 'outsize' feet. Yes, he was surely going to be the most outstanding rickshaw puller in town. In his simplicity, he chuckled to himself..."

A lifetime and wars later:
The sudden warmth seemed to awaken the city [Beijing] from its spring drowsiness, people roused themselves to seek amusement, their enjoyment blossoming in the warmth in step with the flowers, grasses and trees. The young green willow branches and sprouting reeds of of the Nanhai and Beihai Lakes attracted youths playing mouth organs, couples rowed small boats into the shade of the weeping willows, or drifted among the young lotus plants , humming love songs, their eyes kissing. In the parks, the peonies were in full glory, inviting would-be poets and scholars waving expensive paper fans to stroll among them; when they tired they rested under the green pines by the red walls, sipping green tea, thinking idle, melancholy thoughts, and furtively eyeing the courtesans and the daughters of rich families going about their business. Even formerly quiet places now drew visitors, attracted like butterflies by the soft breezes and bright sunshine. People came with their parasols to admire the peonies of Chongxiao Temple, the emerald water reeds of Taoranting, the mulberry woods and paddy fields of the Museum of Natural History. ....Fun, bustle, color and clamor everywhere. The sudden warmth of early summer seemed to bewitch the ancient city, death, disaster and poverty receded, its many inhabitants mesmerized into dreamily singing its praises. Dirty,beautiful, dilapidated, bustling, chaotic, easy-going and charming, this was the great city of Beiping in the early summer." 

"By autumn, he was already too sick to pull a rickshaw, and anyway, his credit was gone so he could not even rent one. He took on the job of watchman for a little store, and was paid two coppers a night for sleeping on the premises. During the day, he did odd jobs that were just enough to to buy porridge. Begging on the streets was out of the question, since no one would take pity on such a big fellow... He only knew how to work to feed himself, without any other help or support. Struggling only for himself, he was also killing only himself...Xiangzi, so decent, willing, fond of day-dreaming, self serving, solitary, strong and admirable, had been attendant at countless funerals, but has no idea when and where he will be buried himself, where his despairing ghost, product of a sick society, degenerate, selfish, unfortunate and individualistic will finally be laid to rest."  Translated by Shi Xiaojing, Chinese-English Bilingual Edition, The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2005

From "The Tea House" --Its three acts set in 1898, the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, 1917, the failure of the Republican Revolution and 1945, the downfall of the Nationalist Government portrayed through a set cast of character meeting in the enduring teahouse 

Act 3, 1945: Wang Lifa, owner of the Tea House: "Gentlemen, since when did a strike become a rebellion?"
                      "Talk about irony, We haven't had any peanuts for God knows how long, and now we haven't got any teeth."

Epilogue (After Mr Wang, the generous proprietor of this gathering place, kills himself in despair at the take over of the Tea House by the corrupt officials of the Nationalist Government

Sweet young lady, dry your eyes;
It's a dark night, but the sun will rise.
Sweet young lady, don't you mope;
From the Western  Hills flows a bright new hope.
A hope to wash away our grief,
and fill our hearts with  new belief. \
In a land where neither you nor I
Nor our children shall know slavery.
translated by John Howard-Gibbon, 2004, Chinese University of Hong Kong

          The Western Hills was the home of the People's Revolutionary Army

For all the writers who live and die by their dreams made real, whose words take on worlds of unjust power, words that defeat imposed silence.         

(all photographs by Joan Nestle and Dianne Otto)