Celebrate Nonfic November with a teaser preview from PRISM 54.2! Elizabeth Horneber was raised in upstate New York, studied in Greece, and taught English in China. She earned her MFA at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Hunger Mountain, Grist, Yemassee, and Monkeybicycle. She was selected as a winner of the Loft Literary Center’s 2015-2016 Mentor Series, and teaches creative writing in Mankato, MN. She is currently finishing a collection of essays based on her time in China. Of her non-fiction essay, “In Considering Henry Kissinger”, Elizabeth says:
Nothing happens in a vacuum. There’s a history to consider. Context. There’s a repetition to human experience. There’s overlap. This essay is about that overlap. It’s about associations—how butterflies remind me of the years I lived in China, as does Ai Wei Wei’s art, and the Chinese legend of Nezha. The essay is an attempt to gather together enough images and history and ideas to give meaning and explanation to a memory.
The essay’s abecedarian form gives the illusion of completeness. It suggests a thorough analysis of its subject. It might remind someone of a catalogue, or a list of definitions. But for me, at least, there’s tension in the relationship between the form and the content. When I was writing this essay, I kept reaching for more—more ways to explore this experience, this feeling I had. I pulled the pieces towards me and arranged them like a puzzle. The sections proceed, A-Z, as if they can form the definition of my experience. But really, the essay is merely a version of an answer. Any experience is unendingly complex in the ways you can look at it, make sense of it. No matter how we organize or catalogue, completeness itself is illusory.
After all, I use my native English alphabet to shape meaning. But Chinese has no alphabet. I sometimes imagine a completely different version of this essay, with meaning spun in ways my mind never learned, and I wonder what it could tell me. The way I feel confined to my culture, my personal history, to my roots—this essay is about that too.
AI WEI WEI
To be an artist in the People’s Republic of China, one must consider the eyes that will watch, some grateful, some suspicious. Welcome the attention, desire it, but know the risk. Ai Wei Wei was once held for eighty-one days by the government without any official charges filed.
He is an architect, a photographer, a sculptor. He makes films and curates. He employs hundreds to assist him in his work—researching demographics, crafting thousands of porcelain sunflower seeds. It is not the physical act of creation that is dangerous. The government fears the mind and voice. Sometimes all Ai Wei Wei needs to do is release a picture, initiate a gesture or symbol. It catches and spreads across China and to distant places of the world.
First it was the middle finger, photographed at close range with the Eiffel Tower in the background, then the Mona Lisa in the back, then the Cultural Palace in Beijing. Then, this: a photo of him raising his leg and pointing his foot like a gun, his black-socked toes aimed, centered on an unseen target. He’s in a pair of boxers and wearing a straw hat, but his eyes are focused, his lips puckered in concentration.
Was this yet another critique of government? A critique of control over media and expression? Though no one seemed sure, people around the world responded with their own poses, their own cocked legs, pointed feet, as though bullets could fly from such toes and the foot could be a kind of protection.
Some wondered if the gesture was meant to echo The Red Detachment of Women, a Chinese ballet that was one of the model operas the Communist party promoted during the Cultural Revolution, when other kinds of art were being purged and destroyed. This ballet spoke the communist message. It urged an emboldened unity of mankind—a loyalty not to the self, but to the masses.
Ai Wei Wei’s pose resembles a position from that ballet. And in speaking of a man to whom art is always political, a way of being, this is not a stretch of the imagination—that feet curled in one context should be bent and curled again towards a new purpose, one self-conceived, self-contained.
They taste with their feet. This is their quest. They stomp on leaves and flowers to release juices, and their feet bathe and quiver in the sweetness.
In 1972, Richard Nixon “opened” China when he took the diplomatic initiative to visit. A few years later, the United States officially recognized China as a country it was willing to deal and trade with.
The first American product imported into China was Coca-Cola.
In 1994, Ai Wei Wei took a Han-period ceramic vase—perhaps real, perhaps forged—and on it he painted, in what appeared to be cracked and aged script, the red curling letters of the Coca-Cola brand.
DESCRIPTION OF MY FEET
I have toes that curl unbidden. You’d think I’ve restricted them with too-small shoes all my life. In reality, I am barefoot as often as possible, so that when I do wear shoes, I quickly develop blisters, and so there are permanent scars midway down the top of each foot, beneath my big toes.
I want the texture of the world against my feet. My feet are willing to own me, to wander unprotected, since ways of protecting can also, sometimes, damage.
My birth certificate says Elizabeth was born in Rochester, New York to parents with a German name.
Other documentation exists, traces of my life.
I am pictured mid-jazz-square in a newspaper clipping after being profiled for my role in a musical.
I am in the school newspaper of my alma mater. The paper asks, Where Are They Now? And there’s a picture of me in Hong Kong, with aviators and a hand on my hip. Teaching English in China, the school paper said.
They quote me as saying that every day in China is something new. I was thinking of the smells that would hit me outside my front door—tofu, discarded animal bones heating in sun-bathed trash bags, and somewhere, a flower I didn’t know the name for in bloom and sweetening the humidity of southern Guangdong. I considered the people I’d pass on the street. Uniformed students singing for money into cheap microphones and portable speakers, apron-clad women with sharp voices bargaining at their food stands, sharp-suited businessmen.
What I meant was that every day you create yourself. Every day your old self is challenged. My skin is canvas. My muscle is clay.
The French phrase pied de gru means “the foot of a crane” and is the derivative of the English word pedigree because of the way a crane foot branches and descends downward in various directions, like a starfish hanging from a stick, much as a sketch of a family tree. Crane feet tell us no one is alone. We are measured by our connections. We are connected by solid lines of flesh.
GENERAL AGREEMENT or GOLDEN LOTUS
“Lotus Feet” is a term for bound feet, after the old Chinese tradition of breaking and binding women’s feet to keep them small. The Golden Lotus was generally agreed to be the ideal length for a woman’s foot—about three inches long. With such small feet, it was necessary for a woman to bend her knees slightly while walking and sway to achieve momentum and balance. It was this walk, this movement, this back and forth blowing about that made men’s heads turn and their mouths water. This slow, uncertain movement was generally agreed to be erotic. The desire, then, was only partially for tiny feet. The desire was for a specific fragility, a body at the mercy of its foundations.