Exploring Stories

I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I finished my thesis project, Same Moon, and graduated from my MFA program! Time flies, especially when you’re no longer pulling all-nighters.

My thesis project was a two-year process, and it was incredibly challenging, but it was also so much fun. Possibly my favorite part of this multifaceted project was designing an interactive ebook, which I called Exploring Stories, that used stories to allow a traveler to explore a famous historical place.

Exploring Stories - LaunchThe concept for Exploring Stories was, whether visiting a site or simply exploring from the armchair at home, users could read stories that were geotagged to specific spots within a map of the tourist destination (Angkor Wat, in the case of my demo), and explore the rich heritage of the place, told from many different perspectives and times throughout history.

The stories represented the physical space, and were navigated via a map rather than a traditional, linear Table of Contents. Users could bookmark their favorites, or explore other stories from the same time period or perspective. Users could also add their own stories to the map, to share with others or keep private in a sort of journal.

For users who were actually at Angkor Wat, their position showed up on the map so the app could be used almost as a guide, and users could access the stories near to them, and stand in the places the story was referencing.

Check out the demo video I put together below:

It was so much fun for me to explore what reading could be, and really push the limits of what defines a book or a reading experience. I love that the interactivity of ebooks or apps allows for new kinds of interaction—in mine, the user gets to go exploring, choose their own adventure and even add their own stories to the “book.” And the interactive abilities allowed me to build a tool that enabled users see the world from different perspectives, and provided an engaging portal to access history and make it come alive, rather than be lost in the past.

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I was inspired in a lot of ways by The Silent History app, which I wrote about in a previous blogpost, and by an amazing service called Maptia, where users tag blogposts to a map of the globe. If you aren’t familiar with them, I highly recommend checking both of them out!

On Autism

For those who don’t know, autism is something very close to my heart thanks to the fact that my charming, awkward, sweet and utterly aggravating younger brother Danny has Asperger’s Syndrome.* With this post I wanted to share a couple of things including what it was like growing up with autism and a couple of resources for learning more about it.

(* Yes, technically Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer being used as a medical term, but it referred to the more mild half of the autistic spectrum, and is still an accurate way of describing Danny.)

First off, when talking with people who have had little experience with the topic, my favorite way to introduce them to the world of autism is to recommend the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Written by Mark Haddon and published in 2003, the mystery novel is told from the perspective of a severely autistic 15-year-old boy named Christopher as he tries to figure out who killed his neighbor’s dog. Throughout the novel the reader gets to experience what life is like for Christopher as he explains how he sees the world and travels from his sheltered world in a special school adapted to his needs through the public transportation of London in a quest to find the answer to his mystery.

While this journey seems fairly simple, even the smallest interaction is fraught with difficulties for Christopher. The reader quickly comes to understand the challenges when at the beginning of the book Christopher meets the policeman who comes to investigate the dog’s death. The kind-intentioned police officer gets more and more suspicious of the strangely-behaving teenage boy hugging the dead dog, and when Christopher won’t follow the police officer’s order, the policeman grabs his arm. Because of Christopher’s autism, however, he won’t allow anyone to touch him and immediately lashes out and strikes the policeman. And so fifteen-year-old Christopher ends up getting thrown in jail for assaulting a police officer.

The book also has more lighthearted moments as well, and moments that while a little sad can also be incredibly amusing. It is a fairly light, easy read, and does a great job of putting the reader in the shoes of an autistic person and seeing what life is like from that perspective. I highly recommend it as a book, and think it is the easiest way I’ve come across of understanding the complicated world of autism.

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In school I wrote plenty of personal pieces on the topic of autism, although nothing anywhere near as good as Mark Haddon’s book. Autism was one of my favorite subject matters for several of my creative writing classes, and I found that in many ways I used these writing assignments as an almost therapeutic way to process my own experiences and emotions around the topic. A lot of it was fairly terrible writing, but some of the pieces I felt managed to capture the right feeling. The following poem I wrote for class in high school, and while it doesn’t have a lot of poetic merit, it helped me to express the experience:

Where He Cannot Change

His hoarse voice is disappearing loudly
As his bathroom on the other side of the wall rattles
With his anger, his frustration, his incapability
Of dealing with the world around him.
He stares into the mirror and sobs
“I hate you”

The whole house hears him
How can we not
And we hurt with him.
We have tried to help
Tried to smooth his way
But we cannot help him there—
Inside his agonized brain
Where he was made,
Different and difficult,
Where he cannot change
And where he is torturing himself
As we all listen.

I also wrote a creative nonfiction essay on the topic that I thought turned out reasonably, but as its about 15 pages its a little big long to share here…

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Another thing I came across recently is the charity Autism Speaks. I found them through Sevenly, a clothing store that sells designs for a different charity each week and donates proceeds to them. A while ago Sevenly featured a design with a lion’s head and the phrase “Live Loud,” for the charity Autism Speaks. “Live Loud” is an embodiment of what Autism Speaks does: provide communication therapy for severely autistic children so that they can learn to actually communicate with the world around them. The shirt immediately reminded me of my excessively loud-mouthed brother, and when I thought of the huge amounts of resources in terms of time, energy and money that my parents poured into a variety of communication therapies for Danny, and knew I had to get the shirt.

Danny is very high functioning, and in fact most people would probably not guess that he’s autistic, just awkward, occasionally tactless, very rule-bound and a little strange. The children that Autism Speaks helps, on the other hand, have low-functioning autism and hardly communicate with the world around them at all. But even though Danny has always been high functioning, and can muddle his way through the world fairly well at this point, there was still such a gamut of help that my parents found for him that I find it hard to wrap my head around it now. For example for several years Danny would meet once a week with a speech therapist at the local Starbucks, where he would get coached and practice regular interpersonal interactions such as striking up a conversation with the barista. Unlike most of us, who figure out based on social cues if a comment is socially appropriate or not, or what is expressed with a slight change in tone of voice, Danny had to be taught all of that.

I’m still amazed at the effort my parents put into helping Danny, and the effort that Danny had to put in every day to learn how to deal with a world that he couldn’t quite figure out and that couldn’t figure out him. But what is perhaps more important at this point, having achieved so much, is to now accept the autism and put it behind him as something that no more defines him than having wavy brown hair. Yes he is autistic. But he is also someone who loves cliche movies and bad puns, who prefers to play games cooperatively rather than competitively, who is a sweetheart of a boyfriend and never notices when he is talking with his mouth completely full of food. Most importantly to me, he’s my brother.

I am happy to talk more about autism with anyone who is curious. It is important to me that the world understands my brother—so often growing up he interacted with people who didn’t realize why he behaved differently and who therefore ended up treating him cruelly through their ignorance or apathy. So if you have a question, comment, or just a story to share, please let me know!

Inspiration and Fraud in Persian Poetry

The other day I was thinking about buying a book on Sufi poetry. It’s something that I’ve run across in small bits and pieces in my dealings with poetry, and always enjoyed. With my limited exposure to it, I found I enjoyed it’s blend of religiousness, nature, romance, sensuality, and wisdom. So when I was trying to brainstorm books to read for my trip to India, this series of books, including A Year with Hafiz and Love Poems from God, came to my attention. I was looking for something to read that would give me a better sense of the cultural background of India; of course Persia and India are very different cultures, but there was enough Persian influence in the Mughal courts that once ruled most of Northern India and built the Taj Mahal (among other stunning monuments), that it seemed relevant.

I looked at those two books specifically because I remembered seeing them in my book of Penguin cover design (Penguin 75). These covers are definitely eye-catching: graceful, elegant, simple, vibrant, just the right touch with the inspiration from Persian carpet design, without being too much. Designed by Ingsu Liu, wife of Penguin art director Paul Buckley, she describes her process:

what stood out to me the most was the bold, lush colors, as well as the ornate patterns from the region’s typography and fabrics. … And not being Middle Eastern myself, I figured it would be smart to keep things simple, not to mention the first of the series was a book of haiku, so that pretty much set the look for the series—spare and elegant.

I came really close to purchasing the books. Poems like the one below struck a cord in me that I felt I could relate to, while still being spare, lyrical, and elegant.

Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth
“You owe me”
Look what happens with a love like that
It lights the whole sky

But I didn’t buy the books.

Why? I came across this article, http://www.payvand.com/news/09/apr/1266.html, reproduced below, that discusses that poem in particular. I’ll leave you to read it in a second, but I have to admit, I’m still teetering about what I think of the books, months later. I haven’t decided if their actual origin taints the poetry for me, or if I can still appreciate the poems for themselves. Leave a comment and let me know what you think about it.

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Numerous people have tried to find the original Persian verse, but they’ve failed. Many went through their Hafiz books a thousand times, but nothing was found. This verse has appeared all over the place, from wall murals in the United States to greeting cards on the Internet. Afschineh Latifi even used it to title her famed memoir “Even After All this Time: A Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving Iran”. Last week, Hojat Golpayegani, writing for Shahrvand, talked about how he has been searching extensively “But without any success”.

Well, I am going to end the agony. It does not exist.

Those who have gone and searched their Farsi books of Hafiz shouldn’t have done so. That’s just not the proper way. They should have been looking for the English version of the poem to see who has translated it and what the sources are. This is especially necessary for Hafiz, since historically it has been shown that translating his work to English is a complex process for which no definitive, accepted version stands out.

The poem that Mr. McGuinty recited comes from a book called “The Gift: Poems by Hafez the Great Sufi Master” by Daniel Ladinsky, American Sufi poet. It was published in 1999 by Penguin Books and was commercially successful. However, this book has nothing to do with Hafiz. Ladinsky, a Sufi who has spent years with Mehrbaba in India, doesn’t even know how to read or write in Farsi. In fact, he claims that he has heard the poems from Hafiz himself in a dream. “I feel my relationship to Hafiz defies all reason” he says in the book’s introduction. “It is really an attempt to do the impossible, to translate light into words… About six months into this work I had an astounding dream in which I saw Hafiz as a never-ending, boundless sun (God), who sang hundreds of verses of his poetry to me in English, asking me to give his message to ‘my fellow artists and art seekers’ “.

This has been rebuked by a lot of critics who accuse Ladinsky of out-right fraud and deception. Murat Nemet-Nejat, a modern Turkish essayist and poet, asserts “Ladinsky’s book is an original poem masquerading as a translation… As God talked to Moses in Hebrew, to Mohammad in Arabic, Hafiz spoke to Daniel Ladinsky in English. Mr. Ladinsky is translating a dream, not a 14th century Persian text”. He continues “As such, the book is worse than a failure; it is a deception, a marketing rip-off of his name”

Enjoying the Details

A few happy moments.

Coming home late last night from the lecture. Walking quickly, because it was cold and I’d had to use the bathroom for the last half hour at least. Looking up briefly to see a spot of gold streak across the sky, above the construction for the new playground. I wondered if it had cone from a plane, or some other strange electronic source, but no. I silent brief shooting star, streaking above Valencia Street, noticed just by me.

On my way down 16th Street to the BART station this morning, walking among all the other commuters. Hearing the sound of a harmonica played somewhere nearby. No great music, but not horrible either. Looking for the street musician and not finding one. Slowly realizing the music was moving down the street with me. As the music transitioned to several long notes very enthusiastically repeated over and over again, I realized it was coming from a stroller being pushed by a curly haired woman in front of me. Her blond three year old in the stroller had a harmonica in hand and was very seriously and very happily playing away. Her free form composition came to an end as we reached the corner, and I smiled and very politely clapped before heading to the station entrance.

Running into an old friend at the DesignSpeaks lecture last night (read my post here). The smiles and simple pleasure in renewing an enjoyable but mislaid friendship.

Noticing the little guardian figurines of the Mission. The gilded but worn imp above a garage on Bartlett street. The elephant with splashes of neon paint jutting out from the side of a wall in an empty lot on Valencia.

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