Chapter 1 The Curious Note
On September ninth, Ingrid Yang could be found cramped over a desk, left foot fallen asleep, right middle finger bruised from writing. She had Xiao-Wen Chou on the mind, so much so that his allusions and alliterations seemed to spill from her every orifice: ears, mouth, nose, vagina. She was chewing at the ends of her hair, then sniffing the paintbrush-like bunches, before scratching at the papery patches of eczema on her ankles. Her eyes were pink veined and sore from having slept three hours the previous night, punctuated by unnecessary trips to the bathroom. She simply sat on the toilet with her eyes closed, nothing going out of, or into, her body.
Even on the occasions she did manage to sleep through the night, Ingrid was plagued by a constant, pinching pain in her stomach. Sometimes she imagined, hopefully, that she was developing ulcers. No one could fault her for failing her dissertation because of stomach ulcers, could they? Pneumonia, then? What about mono? But how to contract these illnesses was another question entirely. There was always the black market-or perhaps she simply had to attend an undergrad frat party.
Pulling her laptop close, she searched "how to contract mono," followed by "top ten deathly illnesses."
No, Ingrid Yang was not doing well.
She was twenty-nine years old and in mounting debt from her undergraduate degree. Four years ago, she had passed her comprehensive exams and started her dissertation. This year, the eighth and final year of her PhD, her funding would run out-an unhappy situation in any circumstance, but compounded by the fact that her student loan deferral was expiring. Somehow, in spite of all this financial doom and gloom, this was also the year she had to produce two hundred fifty pages on Xiao-Wen Chou. And not just any two hundred fifty pages-they had to be shockingly original and convincing! Enough to pass muster with her exacting advisor and an even more exacting dissertation committee. Enough to secure her the prestigious postdoc fellowship created in Xiao-Wen Chou's name.
But after hundreds of hair-pulling hours spent at the archive, all she had accomplished was fifty pages of scrambled notes on Chou's use of enjambment. Plus an addiction to antacids.
Make no mistake, it wasn't as though she hadn't tried. She had come up with ideas of her own! Chou's poetic sprawl representing the eternal inner conflict between eastern selflessness and western individuality. Assimilation into American society in Chou's poetry. The theme of familial deference in Chou's poetry. Chou's poetry and the impossibility of cultural translation. Chou's poetry and the longing for irretrievably lost motherland and mother tongue, etc.
The problem was that some other scholar had, of course, already written about it. No other Chinese American poet had been so widely read in America, had been so consistently analyzed and reprinted year after year. The so-called Chinese Robert Frost was taught to students in high schools and colleges all across the country (and occasionally in advanced middle school classes). In every bookstore and library, a good twelve inches of space were devoted to his prolific work. Even those who wanted nothing to do with literature, who could not tell you Chou's name much less how to spell it, had nonetheless come into contact with his poems. In restaurants, dentist offices and middle-class homes, his quotations adorned boxes of tea, wall decorations and watercolor calendars. Xiao-Wen Chou was loved and respected-more so after he passed away from pancreatic cancer seven years ago.
What could Ingrid possibly offer on the late canonical poet no one else had? She had memorized Chou's poems backwards and forwards, riffled through innumerable archive boxes, worn out her copy of his biography, read incomprehensible secondary sources, read them a third time. She had even attended a pricey international conference in the hopes of gently plagiarizing some Argentinian or Swedish scholar's paper. When she was still a TA, she had surreptitiously assigned her undergrads essay prompts that fed directly into her own research. She had let her other interests fall to the wayside, not to mention healthy eating and exercise. She had postponed planning her wedding for another year. From the moment she woke up to the moment she tried to sleep, Chouian sonnets, villanelles, odes and elegies consumed her. What more could she possibly do? Hire a ghostwriter?
Alas, Ingrid was approaching the problem as though it held a logical solution. There was another reason behind her dissertation woes: she had never wanted to research Chou in the first place.
As an undergraduate student at Barnes University, Ingrid had not known what to major in. She plodded along in her general education classes, dozing off in Physics of Music and floundering in Beginning Russian, all while fretting over her aimless, and expensive, academic taste testing. Unlike her classmates, who adhered to strict ten-year plans on becoming a CEO (of what, they hadn't decided yet), Ingrid didn't know what she was good at or what she loved.
Then, to fulfill a writing requirement, she enrolled in Early 20th-Century Poetry taught by Professor Newman.
Judith Newman didn't walk into a room; the room opened up to accommodate her. She had terrifying pale blue eyes and cropped silver hair and dressed like she was on her way to an avant-garde art exhibit in Berlin. She made the auditorium erect with attention. Even the boys in Ingrid's other classes, who were always shoehorning an obscure philosopher into every single discussion in a bid to win their professors' admiration, were awed into submission. Judith taught without notes, for one thing, and without the crutch of technology (she pitied her colleagues who relied on Word Art graphics to dazzle bored undergrads). She paced back and forth in front of the blackboard, stopping only to unexpectedly call on a trembling student. When Judith lectured on modernist poetry, it seemed to Ingrid as though she were pulling back the curtain of reality. What was once a poem was now an ideological stance on language, war, life, death! She was seduced by the modernist obsession with form over content, the abstract over the concrete (suffice it to say, classes on postcolonial and feminist lit made her feel . . . uncomfortable).
And so Ingrid fell into the arms of her first great love. She spent hours in the library fashioning a poem into something greater than what was written on the page. While her roommate gave a halfhearted hand job to a lacrosse player in the top bunk bed, she hid under her covers with a flashlight in the company of Stein and Mallarmé. Analyzing poetry was cool-it was like literary detective work. Did people actually believe a poem about a red wheelbarrow was about a red wheelbarrow? Philistines! It was about existential dread, obviously. Ingrid derived no greater satisfaction than from spotting what swam beneath the surface of words.
And she was good at it. Her paper "Words That Won't Stop Proliferating: Waste, Différance and the Loss of Center in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land" had received a rare, highly coveted A from Professor Newman. At the end of the semester, she invited Ingrid along with four other students to dine at her house. And what a house it was! Professor Newman's interior design scheme was in fact modeled after an avant-garde art exhibit in Berlin. It was nothing like Ingrid's parents' house, which was cluttered, tacky and did not feature a marble bidet in every bathroom.
Judith was married to a bearded philosophy professor who possessed dual Italian citizenship and, from what Ingrid could tell, excellent calves. For that evening's dinner, he cooked homemade pasta with clams and whipped up a tiramisu for dessert that somehow tasted . . . erotic. They were parents to twins who sagely commented on the day's foreign policy scandals, as if they weren't still dependent on training wheels.
Ingrid gazed at the perfect family before her, woozy with thirty-year-old wine and imported shellfish, and that was when she knew: she was meant to be a professor of modernist literature. Just like Judith Newman.
Being a professor would resolve several of Ingrid's hang-ups, one of which was the intellectual shortage she felt the moment she'd stepped onto campus. While her classmates compared notes about reading a Dickens novel at age ten and watching a Truffaut film at age thirteen, she looked down at her lap. Her parents had never bought her such books or rented her such movies. It was like she arrived at college missing half the baggage they'd been prepackaged with.
Then, too, was the latent fear someone like her was not supposed to be good at English. In first grade, she had been placed in remedial English not because it wasn't her first language, but because she had been too shy to speak up in class. Then, in sixth grade, her English teacher had accused her of plagiarizing her Of Mice and Men essay because she'd used the word "thus."
Added to that, Ingrid was obsessive and neurotic, traits well suited for academia. The real world, or nonacademic world, frightened her with its largeness and unknownness-far better to cozily burrow into old texts, to safely engage with dead authors who couldn't talk back to her. To live inside the past was to debark from contemporary events and concerns, floating away until she landed on a minuscule, highly specialized planet where only a dozen other beings spoke the same language. Ingrid could conceive of nothing better.
She even imagined an entirely new wardrobe to match her future title as Professor Yang: brooches, sensible but devastatingly fashionable eyeglasses, perfume that reminded people of their great-aunt (in a good way).
But when she asked Judith to be her senior thesis advisor, Ingrid was met with a cruel shock: Judith was leaving the English department to join the Comparative Literature department.
"C-Comp Lit?" she stuttered.
"Don't look so surprised, Ingrid. Modernism and deconstruction and post-structuralism-it's all a dying field," every other word punctuated by a quick half smile. "Now comparative literature, on the other hand. Being able to move between mediums, be it film or graphic novels-that's where the future of academia lies. You want to think past the degree, consider what job opportunities are out there. It's a tough game, academia. You need to have a unique . . . angle."
Here Judith squeezed her hands together, and, Ingrid imagined, her thighs under the desk.
"And your particular background is so unique, Ingrid. It doesn't have to be a disadvantage-it can be an advantage. Do you understand what I mean?"
Ingrid nodded enthusiastically and jotted down the words "unique" and "advantage" in her notebook.
"Good. I'm glad we're on the same page. In fact, you'd be perfect for a new project I'm working on." Judith paused. "Research assistantships are usually reserved for graduate students, but I could make an exception for you."
And so Ingrid, being neither Japanese nor interested in Japan, wrote her thesis on Japanese silent film from the 1920s. Afterwards, the jump from Comp Lit to East Asian Studies was a relatively short one. When Judith was poached by a more well-endowed university, she left Ingrid with a parting gift: a new academic advisor, Michael Bartholomew, a "dear colleague" of Judith's.
"I know you're interested in pursuing a PhD," she said. "Talk to Michael. He'll know exactly what to do."
Barnes University made up the center of Wittlebury, Massachusetts. It was a private research university of some one thousand undergraduate students and nearly double that amount in its graduate programs. Founded in 1889, it was not a top-tier nor a lower-tier university. It was a firmly middling institution, propped up by private donations, nepotism and one illustrious (former) professor: Xiao-Wen Chou. The campus was attractive, with redbrick buildings scattered between green lawns, clusters of well-groomed trees and a quad designed to discourage protests.
Inside the main library's basement was the Xiao-Wen Chou archive. Acquired after his death, it housed all the distinguished poet's books, journals, secondary sources, published reviews, letters, personal photographs and other miscellany. In addition to the archivist's desk were eight large desks, each furnished with a globe lamp. The dark mahogany walls were accented with photographs of Chou and prints of traditional Chinese paintings, characterized by plum tree blossoms, mountains, cranes, peasant women bent over rice paddies, that sort of thing. Chou's book covers looked more or less identical, though they also featured flowery fans and chopsticks resting delicately on porcelain bowls.
Ingrid got up from her desk, left foot still asleep, and hobbled to the archivist's desk. She planned to check out box number fifteen, the same one she'd examined yesterday, and guessed it would be an equally fruitless endeavor, but what other choice did she have? She needed to kill time, as if it were a thing with a neck she could wrap her hands around until it produced, say, an original and convincing idea.
She stood before the archivist, smiling widely, hoping Margaret Hong would smile back at her. They had never exchanged many words, but Ingrid liked to imagine they shared an unspoken intimacy. She spent a significant amount of time studying her instead of the archive materials.
Margaret only ever wore thick brocade embroidered with vulgar-looking peonies, peacocks or pagodas. After stalking her online, Ingrid learned she sewed them herself and sold them for exorbitant prices. She kept a packet of salted dried plums in her desk drawer, which she discreetly sucked on and indiscreetly spat into a napkin stashed in the same drawer. Ingrid often saw her slip her shoes off to stretch her plump toes in their sheer stockings. When she thought no one was looking, she'd cough and reach around to the back of her skirt, where Ingrid surmised she was ungluing her underwear from between her derriere. Word around the archive had it that Margaret was either a martial arts grandmaster or the heiress to a catnip fortune or on the run from the Bulgarian government.
Most recently, Ingrid liked to picture Margaret having an illicit affair with Daryl Abrams-Wu, the lanky archive intern. Daryl habitually wore a spiked dog collar, painted his nails black and maintained a long slick of hair strategically placed over one eye.
"I said, did you reserve the box online," Margaret repeated.
The image of Margaret straddling Daryl on the accessible toilet evaporated.
"Uh, no. Sorry."
Margaret sighed heavily, as if Ingrid were the most useless archive visitor she had ever encountered. Ingrid watched her walk to the back and return with a gray box and a pair of white cotton gloves.
"Thanks!" she said with a forced smile.
Margaret didn't smile back. Perhaps things weren't going well with Daryl.
Ingrid carried box number fifteen to her desk and yawned. For an hour, her gaze alternated between her laptop and legal pad. She wrote one sentence, then crossed it out. Typed another one, then deleted it. Clicked undo, changed a preposition, then deleted it again.