ln late May, Tristan Harris, head of the Center for Humane Technology, appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the UK's House of Commons. By video link, he testified on a bill with the title "Fake News" and described, among other things, the effects of unethical design by Facebook, YouTube, and Google. As I read this impressive testimony, I was struck by the fact that Harris's description of users of these applications didn't quite match me. Here are the ways in which I differ:

  • I don't have a smartphone.
  • I don't spend hours mindlessly watching video after video on YouTube.
  • I don't follow friends' news feeds on Facebook.

Let me add to this a few more things that I think distinguish me from the people Harris was describing:

  • I don't have a TV.
  • I don't get my news on Facebook.
  • I read print media, including newspapers, magazines, and books.
  • I do much of my work (editing and proofreading) and writing (poetry and fiction) with pen and paper.

This makes me wonder how many people among the two billion Harris cites in his testimony are like me. Even if the percentage is just one-half of one percent, that is a million people. What role can this minority play in the manipulated, addicted culture Harris describes?

Free Will brought down by the villains of the Internet.

Free Will brought down by the villains of the Internet.


Here is what Harris says about choice in the digital culture:

We often see people who use Facebook as making a conscious choice—
think of the 150 times a day people check their phones, which we often
think of as 150 conscious choices. When I was a kid I was a magician, and
that teaches you to see this word “choice” in a very different way. The
whole premise is that, by controlling people’s attention, you can control
their choices.
The thing about magic—this is important, because it really speaks to the
framing for all the issues we are going to talk about today—is that it works
on all human minds, no matter what language they speak, no matter how
old or young they are, and no matter whether they are educated or not. In
fact, if they have a PhD, they are usually easier to manipulate. In other
words, there are facts about the hardware of the human mind, and that
gives you a reference point for asking, “Are there facts about how to
manipulate and influence any human mind that your audience won’t
know?” The answer is, of course, yes.

I believe that as long as you have choice, you have control. Harris is saying that this is not the case:  your attention is being controlled, and therefore, the “choice” you exercise is an illusion. Facebook, YouTube, and Google have reduced the number of choices you have to the few that profit them.

Social engagement sans social media

Not counting the lunch meeting I had a few days ago, my get-together with friends today was the first of seven social engagements I have this month—all arranged without the benefit of phone or Facebook. I met my friends A, M, and S at a Greek restaurant, and no cellphone peeked out or buzzed during the ninety or so minutes we were there. A does not have a cellphone, and M and S, who are married, have smartphones under a family plan.

Of the four of us, S is the most popular socially. A retired English teacher with hundreds of Facebook friends, she has the kind of humor that is both self-deprecating and witty. I was reminded of how good it felt to be with people I love and to share experiences, stories, and jokes. Beyond the reach of the Internet, we exercised our choice to laugh, share, and empathize, and these seemed like the best things we could be doing.

Bold claims

I'm going to step out on a limb and make the following claims:

  1. Through the constant use of digital devices, we are turning into human batteries. We think we are plugged into our devices, but actually they are plugged into us. We are the source of the energy running them, and the more we use them, the more we modify ourselves to suit their requirements. To break this circuit, we need to wake up from the spell the digital culture has cast over us.
  2. Those of us who are different from our fellow human beings can play a couple of minority roles, either active or static. We can proselytize and try to convert others to be like us, or we can anchor ourselves in the bedrock and let social and cultural currents flow against us. Or, of course, we can do a bit of each.
  3. Synergy requires presence, direct involvement. The kind of intellectual and emotional development that we prize comes from being in the presence of people we care about and admire—not for achieving success or recognition but for having qualities we value. At the lunch meeting I mentioned above, three of us—the head of my office, an outside project manager, and I—discussed short- and long-term plans for a big publication we are involved in. We have been emailing almost daily, sometimes more than once in a day, but meeting face-to-face was critical to the realization of our plans.

Ghost of a Chance: The Haunting

The following is the content of a presentation I made in January 2018 as a member of a literary panel organized by Steve Heller for the Hawaii International Conference on the Arts and Humanities.


In her book Liespotting, Pamela Meyer describes attempts to design machines that will detect lying, the most popular of which is the polygraph. As she says, however, many courts will not allow the results of lie-detector tests to be admitted as evidence. Designers of these machines believe that biological functions—heartbeat, breathing, temperature, blood flow, and so forth—change when people are lying and that the machines can detect when this happens.

But it turns out that people’s heart rate, breathing, and so forth can also vary if they are telling the truth. And to make things more complex, the innocent can feel guilt from just being bystanders, witnesses, or confidantes.

In recollecting and retelling significant events, we relive them in all their vivid, lasting power. If we put our accounts on paper, we sometimes feel as if we’ve become two people: the one terrified, excited, grieving, dazed, lonely, traumatized—and the other watching and recording.

Depending on what we are writing and whom we are writing for, it can be vitally important to capture the experience in accurate detail. It can also be important to capture effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which can magnify the initial experience, appear unexpectedly, and cast their own strange power over us. And it can be crucial to define our relationship to the event: participant, witness, victim, reporter.

The following description of a machine that detects deviations from normal functions is from Maria Bustillos’s article on Blade Runner 2049. She begins by describing John Shade, the main character of Pale Fire, a novel in poetic form by Vladimir Nabokov, and then shifts to Detective K/Joe, the main character of the film:

One day [Shade] is giving a lecture and collapses with a heart attack, and within it, a vision.
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And, dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
These lines recur in Blade Runner 2049 multiple times as a sort of test of Joe’s sanity, like a car diagnostic. Hesitations, it seems, or evidence of questioning, indicate a malfunction in the machine. Joe too is wondering, even though he isn’t supposed to, what everything is for —what he himself is for. For Joe, the fountain is the little wooden horse he remembers (or does he?) from his childhood in an orphanage. The curiosity he dares himself to follow to its conclusion leads him to this totem, and finally to Deckard [the detective from the original Blade Runner]….There is a rapport between them that may indicate an answer to Joe’s question of why, why he is important, “special” as his lover says. Why he exists at all: it seems there may be a reason.

The machine finds that Joe’s sanity, as Bustillos calls it, is impaired, and his superior officer takes him off active duty. From then on, he is suspended in a mystery: discovering the purpose for which he was created.


What does a poet make poems out of? Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails? Sugar and spice and everything nice? No. No.

For many of us, poems are made in part of memories of people in our past who have become the ghosts of our present. Words spoken to us, whispers, smells, impressions that are difficult to tolerate and yet forget, actions that changed our lives but that we had no say in, pushes, shoves, embraces wanted and unwanted—these are some of the things that poems are made of.

Poets drawing on the truth of their lives—if some of it is sad, ugly, or painful—can wonder, like Joe in Blade Runner 2049, if trying to capture these moments is what they should be doing. Or should they, like others in Joe’s society, pretend to have ordinary lives and suppress whatever makes them different, causes them to “malfunction”—in Joe’s case, a desire to learn the truth of himself. For the society of 2049, such truths can be dangerous, for embedded in the social foundation are lies, falsehoods passing as the truth.

And yet writing also causes harm to the truth teller: tears, mourning, hate, revulsion, nightmares, fantasies of revenge. But accepting these disturbances because they are not a measure of lying but an accompaniment of truth telling is something we eventually learn to do. It is part of becoming a writer or artist. In that sense, if our childhood and young adulthood don’t corrupt or destroy us, many of us who make it to middlehood or latehood are artists.

Here I would define corrupt as becoming like the ghosts that haunt us.

For this presentation, I want to focus on my poem “Devotion,” which is about a man I knew many years ago—someone who was firm in his convictions and couldn’t be swayed that he should reexamine who he was.

In “Devotion,” a writer “endlessly refines his logic to eliminate his fault.” He leaves his wife each day to go to his office, where he composes fantasies about women. This creative task becomes overwhelmed by his sexual desires, and he starts to act on them, first by seducing a girl. Her age is not given, but the context suggests she is a minor and a virgin. Another character, The Simoniac, appears, at first trying to disclose to the wife what the writer is doing, and then to the writer himself in an effort to save him. We can see The Simoniac—the name is for a seller of pardons—as a representative of the force of morality, though he does not enforce laws or rules. He simply gives people the opportunity to choose morality.

Toward the end of the poem, the writer commits a murder but feels no more remorse about it than he does about his other deeds. So in “Devotion,” a large social force moves through the lives of the characters, casting its shadow, wielding its light. When the writer rejects the presence and influence of this force, he condemns himself to a life in which forgiveness, compassion, and humanity have fled. He then becomes a ghost: the kind of amoral man who haunts my writing.

My Response to a Synopsis of Bedeviled in Honolulu Magazine

In a June 2017 feature entitled “29 Must-Read Local Books You Won’t Want to Put Down This Summer,” the following description of Bedeviled appeared.

Overworked, underpaid Ted Koga is stuck—in his Pearl Harbor job, in his marriage, as an ineffectual father—when his online porn habit draws the attention of his military employer. From this promising setup, Matsueda teases out a portrait of a man torn between religion and smut. Suspended from work, shamed at church and separated from his family, he finds hope by helping his daughter into recovery.

I want to comment on all the things wrong with this synopsis.

Pearl Harbor

Bedeviled doesn’t mention Pearl Harbor. Though the military base in the book is much like PH, the differences will be obvious to readers who know PH well. Why is it important to make this point? Because the reality of PH is too limiting, and identifying where Ted works as PH could influence a person’s reading of the story. The base in Bedeviled could exist only in fiction, where it is free to expand and transform in response to the narrative.

Being Stuck

The idea of being stuck may have been taken from a review that Michael Schmicker wrote for Here is the second sentence of Schmicker’s review: “Stuck in a dead-end job, his marriage failing, his bank account empty, his children a disappointment, [Ted Koga] spends his free time surfing porn online, an addiction complicated by his fundamentalist Christian upbringing.”

Torn between Religion and Smut

Ted is not torn between religion and smut. His particular kind of arrogance allows him to have both things: he is free to sin, he tells himself, as long as he is a Christian believer. Eventually, he is compelled by events to choose not between religion and smut but between the self he has fashioned to survive and the self he had started his adult life with: one full of idealism, hope, and strength; a self not tormented by contradictions and compromised by the past. His challenge is to understand why he has failed to adhere to the principles that informed his identity as a young man, husband, and member of society—and to act when his understanding is complete.

Online Porn Habit Draws the Attention of His Military Employer

In connection with a crime, Ted is investigated, and it’s this, not his "porn habit," that “draws the attention of his military employer.”

Suspended from Work

Ted is not suspended. He is required to take a month’s paid leave for a psychiatric evaluation and remains employed throughout the story.

Shamed by Church

The shaming takes place in the background of the story, many years before the book’s present.

Finding Hope by Helping Daughter into Recovery

Gwen, Ted’s daughter, does not formally go “into recovery.” She is saved from self-destruction by her father, and this saving is taken up and extended by the Ogata family. The conditions of Ted's and Gwen's lives change organically. In a new home and new role, each character’s protected self—traumatized, betrayed, and wounded—heals to the point where it can emerge without judgment and fear. For Ted and Gwen, the process of recovery is ongoing, and it’s in this continuing state that their story meets its conclusion.

The third sentence of Schmicker’s review captures the essence of the book: “A spare, quietly spiritual novella, Bedeviled delivers Matsueda’s extended, thoughtful meditation on marriage, family and forgiveness.” Faced with a moral challenge, Ted struggles to earn the forgiveness that he once felt he did not deserve.

In closing, I also want to quote a brief review that Ann Pancake wrote for the edition published through

Bedeviled is a quiet thriller, one I couldn’t put down and read in two days flat—but this novella is more than a riveting story. Matsueda inhabits with great sensitivity flawed people usually dismissed and scorned in our culture, challenging reader assumptions while still keeping her characters’ feet to the fire. A graceful book by a courageous writer.

An author couldn’t hope for more precise, insightful words than these from Schmicker and Pancake. This is true praise, for which I am very grateful.

Planet of the Apps, Part II

In the afterword to the paperback edition of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr reflects on responses to the hardback edition, published in 2010.

A backlash against the Net, it seems, is under way, and it is by no means limited to the scribblings of disillusioned middle-age authors. Software programmers have begun writing applications intended to shield us from the Net's distractions. Programs like Freedom and Anti-Social automatically switch off your Internet connection or restrict your access to social networks for hours at a time, allowing you to complete a job or follow a train of thought without interruption.…There's something funny, and a little sad, about looking to software to curb our technological appetites—to give us a virtual backbone—and it remains to be seen how broadly these apps will come to be used. Nevertheless, their existence testifies to a growing sense of unease about the Net's effects. People seem to be looking for ways to loosen technology's grip on their lives and thoughts.
I saw signs of this blacklash in the correspondence I received from readers of The Shallows. (Most of the notes arrived via e-mail, though I do have a sizable stack of typed and handwritten letters on my desk.) Dozens of people wrote to share their own stories of how the Web has scattered their attention, parched their memory, or turned them into compulsive nibblers of info-snacks. I was particularly struck by the large number of notes that came from young people—high-schoolers, college kids, twentysomethings. They fear that constant connectivity may be constricting rather than expanding their horizons. Some of their stories are poignant. One college senior sent me a long email describing how he has struggled with "a moderate to major form of Internet addiction" since the third grade. "I am unable to focus on anything in a deep or detailed manner," he wrote. "The only thing my mind can do, indeed the only thing it wants to do, is plug back into that distracted frenzied blitz of online information." He is drawn back into the Web even though he knows that "the happiest and most fulfilled times of my life have all involved a prolonged separation from the Internet."…
As computers shrank, they became a lot less threatening. Eager for their assistance, we welcomed them into our homes and then into our pockets. But the young are still the enemies of uniformity, and the Internet, as it extends its reach into all the nooks and crannies of our days, is looking more and more like an enormous conduit of conventionality. What are Facebook and Google but giant institutions, arms of the new Establishment? What are smartphones if not high-tech leashes?…
Of course, in conjuring up a big anti-Net backlash, I may be indulging in a fantasy of my own. After all, the Internet tide continues to swell. In the months since I completed The Shallows, Facebook membership has doubled from 300 million to 600 million; the number of text messages processed every month by the typical American teen has jumped from 2,300 to 3,300; sales of e-readers, tablets, and smartphones have skyrocketed; app stores have proliferated; elementary schools have rushed to put iPads in their students' hands; and the time we spend in front of screens has continued its seemingly inexorable rise. We may be wary of what our devices are doing to us, but we're using them more than ever. And yet, history tells us, it's only against such powerful cultural currents that countercultural movements take shape.

Thinking about my life and how I use what Carr calls "the networked computer," I realize that I use it differently from most of my friends. Here are my thoughts on this:

  1. I set up and maintain sites and blogs pretty regularly. Most recently, I've been working on a writing-editing-publishing site that is part of a network established by a writers' group I belong to. I also help a couple of friends with their sites (one of which I set up) and another friend with the blogs he's created for his English classes.
  2. I do editing, production, and design work as well, helping authors and publishers to make books and nonprofit organizations to make promotional materials. I use the Internet to communicate with my clients, to download files they send me, and to send them drafts; otherwise, the work doesn't require me to be connected.
  3. It could be that this kind of work makes it unnecessary for me to have a smartphone. I am connected through my computer—or don't need to be—so a smartphone offers me nothing I don't have. I can tend to my personal relationships, do my job, and run my small business without it.
  4. Does that mean I never use a smartphone? No. Once a week, I use my boyfriend's iPhone to communicate with a family member who prefers to be texted instead of emailed or called. And when we're on the road, I occasionally use his phone to check a movie time or store location. (See "On Smartphones and Deep Thinking," posted June 12, for other thoughts on smartphones.)

The cover spread of a book I produced for El León Literary Arts, of Berkeley, California.

A few days ago, I read an Ello interview with designer and photographer Ben Tremper; near the end is this exchange:

Is there anything special that helps you stay focused?
Music mostly and this thing @amy and I came up with called “Power Hour” where we turn off all notifications, phones, distractions and just go into full concentration mode. It’s amazing how distracting things like email notifications and Slack notifications can be. Turning it all off for one or multiple Power Hours helps you get a lot done.

For me, being unplugged is a relief after spending hours at the computer. Like a phantom limb, though, the computer sometimes tugs at my neural system to respond.

The Shallows interests me greatly not only for its analysis of and commentary on technology but also for its review of some of the events in our development as creative, intelligent, and self-reflective beings. Arriving at the present, Carr sees computer technology as being substantively different, in part because it is so prevalent and invasive. In the prologue, "The Watchdog and the Thief," he says,

As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society. "The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts," wrote [Marshall] McLuhan. Rather, they alter "patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance."…
Our focus on a medium's content can blind us to these deep effects. We're too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what's going on inside our heads. In the end, we come to pretend that the technology itself doesn't matter. It's how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we're in control. The technology is just a tool, inert until we pick it up and inert again once we set it aside.

From what I can see, the setting aside seems to be happening less and less. And as this happens, we become more dependent on our devices to remember, solve, search, and find for us. It's as if the Internet is becoming an all-knowing, all-powerful creature that not only feeds our appetites but also finds new ways to increase our dependency on it.

It seems to me that smartphones are popular in part because most people are using them—a self-perpetuating cycle. Not only is our copycat impulse a fundamental element of our sociality, but in many situations, smartphones are a staple of social interaction. And if we manage to acquire the latest, greatest (for the moment) smartphone, we have an important key to unlocking the admiration and envy of others. If life is a game, the latest smartphone is one of its prizes.

Two discussions seem to be missing from The Shallows, though it might be more accurate to say that Carr chose not to include them. The first is an exploration of how the Internet is causing us to see ourselves differently and, in response, to either modify ourselves or create alternate, more desirable selves. The second is a consideration of the ways in which materialism and consumerism drive the growth of the Internet—and vice versa—for example, in the production of more devices and apps that both simplify and intensify the experience of connecting. These things are intertwined, of course. What kinds of selves are our electronic devices helping us to create? What kinds of selves are we serving up to the forces of marketing and consumerism?

Ironically, increased connectivity to the Internet decreases our connectedness to each other, a topic Sherry Turkle, mentioned by Carr in his afterword, explores in her research and a TED talk.

Planet of the Apps, Part I

In "A Thing Like Me," the concluding chapter of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr describes a USC Brain and Creativity Institute study and then draws some conclusions.

Psychologists have long studied how people experience fear and react to physical threats, but it's only recently that they've begun researching the sources of our nobler instincts. What they're finding is that, as Antonio Damasio, the director of USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, explains, the higher emotions emerge from neural processes that "are inherently slow." In one recent experiment, Damasio and his colleagues had subjects listen to stories describing people experiencing physical or psychological pain. The subjects were then put into a magnetic resonance imaging machine and their brains were scanned as they were asked to remember the stories. The experiment revealed that while the human brain reacts very quickly to demonstrations of physical pain—when you see someone injured, the primitive pain centers in your own brain activate almost instantaneously—the more sophisticated mental process of empathizing with psychological suffering unfolds much more slowly. It takes time, the researchers discovered, for the brain "to transcend immediate involvement of the body" and begin to understand and to feel "the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation."
The experiment, say the scholars, indicates that the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions. "For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people's social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection," cautions Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a member of the research team. "If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people's psychological states." It would be rash to jump to the conclusion that the Internet is undermining our moral sense. It would not be rash to suggest that as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplating, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.

One reaction I had to what Carr says here is that literature—including a book like The Shallows—offers what the Internet often does not: immersion in the experiences and thoughts of others long enough to develop true empathy and complex understanding. It's the loss of the bounded, limited self that we refer to when we talk about losing ourselves in a book.

I also thought about "Harrison Bergeron," Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s 1961 short story, which begins:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
Some things about living still weren't quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron's fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.
It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn't think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn't think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

In the year 2016, it is not the government's mission to make us all equal but business's mission to make us all consumers that drives the effort to interrupt us and distract us from our thoughts. This is life in the twenty-first century: making our way through a maze of advertising in order to find what we truly want. What will we have forgotten along the way? What will we have lost?

In Vonnegut's story, the Bergerons have become so handicapped that they are unable to register the most tragic event in their lives. Despite George's possessing a superior intelligence, he cannot construct a narrative of what he witnesses; and without a narrative, his singed brain cannot form an interpretation, much less a judgment. Hazel sheds a tear, but she does not know why. Her pain centers have been reached, but the pain she feels is like her husband's: an acute, wounding sensation without meaning.

Part II of the 2015 AWP Conference

Four of us MANOA staff members arrived in Minneapolis on Tuesday, April 7, for the 2015 AWP conference, held from April 9 to 11. We had organized two panel presentations and book signings and had reserved a booth at the book fair, which attracted about eight hundred exhibitors. Among other things planned was meeting our Singapore contributors, whom we had been corresponding with for many months.

As tourists, we began exploring the city on Wednesday morning. Near our hotel was the  Walker Art Center , and across the street from it was the  Minneapolis Sculpture Garden , which features  Claes Oldenburg 's iconic sculpture.

As tourists, we began exploring the city on Wednesday morning. Near our hotel was the Walker Art Center, and across the street from it was the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which features Claes Oldenburg's iconic sculpture.

Frank Stewart, editor of MANOA, and Sonia Cabrera, associate editor, in front of  Open Book , which houses several publishing entities and has a wonderful gift shop. Most of the items shown on my  home page  were obtained at Open Book.

Frank Stewart, editor of MANOA, and Sonia Cabrera, associate editor, in front of Open Book, which houses several publishing entities and has a wonderful gift shop. Most of the items shown on my home page were obtained at Open Book.

On Thursday morning, we had a translation presentation, which I missed because I had to be at our exhibit booth when the book fair opened at 9 a.m. I heard that it was terrific and attracted an audience of about thirty people, most of them translators. On Friday, we had book signings by Andrew Schelling, translator of Bright As a Moon: Fifty Poems from the Sanskrit, and four of our Singapore contributors: Jeremy Tiang, playwright, translator, and member of Thursday's translation panel; Jason Lundberg, fiction writer, editor at Epigram Publishing, and founder of Lontar; Amanda Lee Koe, fiction writer and fiction editor for Esquire Singapore; and Jee Leong Koh, poet and founder of Singapore Poetry.

The opportunity to feature contributors to Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore inspired us to also organize a panel presentation, which AWP scheduled for the last day of the conference.  We'd been working with writers in the issue since late 2013, and in 2014 we started promoting Starry Island to new readers. On Saturday, Jeremy, Jason, Amanda, and Jee read their work and spoke on Singaporean writing. Because of the small audience, the room felt cavernous, but the presentations were strong and well received. Jeremy, Amanda, and Jee had traveled from New York, where they are now living, and Jason, the American, had come all the way from Singapore. It was a pleasure to meet them, and we hope to renew the friendship sometime in the near future.

Jeremy Tiang, Jason Lundberg, Amanda Lee Koe, and Jee Leong Koh at MANOA's exhibit booth.

Jeremy Tiang, Jason Lundberg, Amanda Lee Koe, and Jee Leong Koh at MANOA's exhibit booth.

Click on the flyer to be taken to our Singapore blog.

Click on the flyer to be taken to our Singapore blog.

Character sketches for my novel

Sketch 1

Gwen studied the young man standing on the sidewalk. His cardboard sign read “Army vet just back from Iraq. Struggling. Any help appreciated.” A bicycle with a white frame lay on the sidewalk. When he saw her looking at him, she turned away but could feel the heat of his gaze on her face. If only the traffic light would change. 

He was shirtless, pale. His head was shaved, and he had a fine blond, almost white, beard along his jawline. A ring pierced his lower lip.

She continued to look away, determined to focus her eyes on what was ahead, as if it were someplace she had to get to urgently. Her father said nothing, his eyes fixed on the traffic. He hung his arm out the Camry, his fingers lightly grasping the roof.

The young man’s gaze burned her cheek, caressed her face and hair. In her mind’s eye, she saw the lean, muscular torso, the military pants low on the hips. He didn’t look like the homeless people she usually saw on this corner. His skin was clean, his complexion clear; his muscles were round and full, not starved and stressed.

Her neck muscles were rigid from forcing herself to look away.

Finally the light changed, and the Camry moved west on School Street, toward the on ramp for the freeway. She closed her eyes and sighed deeply. She would never be with a man again, she thought to herself. Never. She would fill the empty space herself, with all the things she wanted to do and be. She would fight for her freedom.

Sketch 2

Gwen watched the couple across from her at Goma Tei, the ramen shop at Ward Center. They were all sitting at the counter, a U-shaped structure that stretched about ten feet from the kitchen to the double glass doors at the shop entrance. The woman was slender, blonde, and fair skinned. Her unplucked eyebrows were also blonde, and she wore a black, high-necked dress and no makeup. She had put her shoulder-length hair in a ponytail that rested against her back.

The man was dark skinned, thinner than the woman, and wearing a light tan nylon jacket over a white shirt. His thick, wavy black hair was parted neatly on the side, and his eyeglasses had heavy, conservative frames.

The couple didn’t look at each other, but the woman was turned slightly toward the man and seemed to want to share his thoughts and feelings. He didn’t look at her, didn’t speak.

As Gwen sat quietly, trying to observe without being obvious, the woman pulled the light-blue band off her ponytail, took the man’s hand, and put the band around his wrist. He stared at it for several seconds, then he pulled on it a bit, thinking deeply about something. When their large, steaming bowls arrived, they ate their meal in silence as if enfolded in privacy while families and couples sat around them, talking and eating. It was curious, Gwen thought, unable to figure out their relationship. Obviously they were a couple, but happy, unhappy, married, not? She couldn’t tell. She did notice that when the man looked at the band and touched it, he seemed to soften, his mood to lose its somber, dark edge. Why was the woman so patient, willing to wait for his words, his thoughts, his attention? He had something of value, something he wasn’t free to give—his heart perhaps? Commitment to her?

They left, not even speaking when they paid their tab—returning to, Gwen thought, the life that had been interrupted by the meal, by their venture into a public place.

Conference and Book Fair of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, April 8–11, 2015, Minneapolis

Part I, The Convention Center and the Letter

The Minneapolis Convention Center is a sprawling four-level, stadium-sized structure with a large lawn where Minneapolitans picnic on sunny days. A glass-enclosed overpass called the Skyway connects some surrounding hotels with the center, opening early in the morning and closing late at night. Users therefore get protected access above the street level, moving safely and efficiently to the center. Though it is enclosed and access seems possible only through the hotels, I did see a man sleeping on the floor one morning, his belongings arrayed next to him.

At our hotel, the Millennium Hotel Minneapolis, we climbed two flights of stairs in the lobby in order to enter the Skyway. The hotel is one of a chain, and its website describes it as having recently undergone a $22 million renovation. It has the sleek, upscale look that business travelers like but is more modest—in pretensions as well as size—than the Hilton, which we visited a couple times to meet with friends. In addition to access to the convention center, the Millennium has a lobby with a fireplace, a pool, a spa, and a geodesic dome on the top floor that offers a nearly 360-degree view of the city. Our last night in the city, we went to the dome and found a private party going on in one of the hotel rooms. To my surprise and delight, the sign posted outside announced the host as Bennington College's writing seminar program.

We had a history with Bennington.

The college requires students to intern with an employer during the so-called field work term (FWT), which falls between semesters. We became aware of FWT several years ago, when a student named Anna Kariel contacted us to see if we would sign up as an employer and allow her to do her field work with us (she had a female relative living in Hawai‘i whom she wanted to see and could stay with). The FWT is an intensive internship that lasts several weeks, during which the student must work several hours daily. In fall 2013, William Larsen applied to MANOA, and we accepted him as an intern for spring 2014. Will had just entered the freshmen class and was an amateur musician (guitar and banjo), actor, and juggler, among other things.

At the AWP book fair, held in a cavernous hall of the convention center, my co-workers were tending our exhibit booth when a woman came by and dropped something off. When I returned, I was told that a professor of Will's had delivered, at his request, a note and a jar of Vermont maple apple drizzle. In the quiet that settles around you when you focus on some small thing in a crowd, I read the warm and affectionate note from Will. It was the sort of expression of friendship, kindness, and appreciation that you always hope to get but rarely do, and I was amazed and touched. Then, when we went to the dome on the last evening of our stay and I saw the Bennington sign, I felt as if a circuit had been completed. My office mates and I had traveled thousands of miles from Honolulu to Minneapolis, and once there had reconnected with a friend we'd made back home.

The AWP conference brings people together—sparks new connections and strengthens old ones—in ways such as this. Expectations are high at the start of the conference, and even if you have been to previous ones, you begin with a sense of adventure. This is the result of journeying far from home with a sense of purpose that unites you with colleagues from all over the country. That this happens for only a few days once a year gives the experience a precious quality: associations formed through common purpose become relationships, and the annual renewals of these are very sweet.

Coming next: Part II, Meeting Our Panelists


May have finally finished this short film review, though a small voice says not. Belying the review's length is the three hours it took to write and edit.

Despite Snowpiercer's unsatisfying ending, the film is worth seeing. Sensitive viewers are warned, though, about the stomach-churning violence.

Details about the film's development, production, and release are on Snowpiercer's Wikipedia page. The page includes a summary of the plot, so readers may wish to skip that section if, like me, they prefer not to know a film's narrative before watching it.