Letter from the Editors: Black and White

Ho Lin

Ho Lin: Black and White

     The limits of my language means the limits of my world.
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein

     Last year in this space, we poked fun at the political process. One calendar year later, the joke has culminated in a punchline reeking with the darkest absurdities. Not that this is new—scan back to any random year across the millennia, and you’ll find learned commentary about how we’re now totally and utterly screwed. Yeats might have written about history as a widening gyre; it might be more accurate to describe ourselves as being in a perpetual state of free fall.
     When nothing seems certain, when the very ground seems to be giving way beneath our feet, it’s not a surprise that language itself has similarly been shaken to its very core. Depending on how the user wields and regards them, words can now signify everything and nothing. Forget sound and fury—as the Temptations would say, it’s one great big ball of confusion. Think what you want about our current sitting President (or perhaps we should say reclining, like those satiated emperors of yore), but one cannot deny that his reign has emphasized the liquidity of words: how powerless, nonsensical, yet destructive they can be. Every statement, no matter how casual, thoughtless, or calculated, is treated like the ending of a world, or the beginning of a newer, crueler one. Black can be interpreted as white, and vice versa, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Statements with opposing views are regarded as the blatherings from the other side of the aisle (and therefore invested with motives, skullduggery and general unworthiness), and thus beneath consideration. Words have always been weapons, media and propaganda agencies serving as battalions; these days they resemble malfunctioning howitzers, threatening to blow up in all directions.
     This notion of language being freely appropriated and discarded like one might appropriate or discard jackboots and a uniform strikes home on a personal level for me—this month marks the release of my first book of short stories, China Girl. As with any writer and his or her work, there lurks the fear that the words contained within my book are not as precise, not as essential, not as persuasive as they could be. But once it’s out there—in black and white, so to speak—what can one do but surrender to the interpretations of the masses?  I read a reviewer's take on a book recently: “Perhaps not as engaging as I had hope [sic] but I think this is on me.” One could say that this is on all of us. And then there’s the question of my own interpretations: many of the stories in my book are set in Asia, with dialogue and culture refracted through the fun-house mirror of my own American-bred sensibilities. Might this be yet another case of appropriation, of bandwagon-jumping, where words are woefully insufficient to bring out the full flavor of these dishes we’re cooking up?
     But such is the suggestive power of words that they will always contain multitudes. Although it’s only partially up to us whether we can deploy them for good or ill, we’re happy to say that in this issue of Caveat Lector, you’ll find plenty of evidence of writers who know how to use their words (just as a parent scolding a recalcitrant child says Use your words—from youth, we’re accustomed to words as tools and weapons, it seems). Mika Yamamoto’s “One Summer, Another Hot Summer” bathes in the liquidity of language: we experience both a bleak tragedy as well as literal rebirths and restarts. Richard Slota and co-editor Christopher Bernard’s “Hospital Suite” poems marry bruising fact with sorrow, humor and rumination. Kathleen Gunton’s “Inside the Bell of Colors” dares to imagine a future unburdened by words. And speaking of our reclining President, Jonathan Hutner’s “Trump’s Towers” dares to apprehend the meaning of the man and the stuff that comes out of his mouth.
     When we set black and white alongside each other, it’s with the unspoken proviso that what we get out of them is always open to change. If there’s a positive message that can be drawn from these decidedly un-positive times, it’s that we can swing from one to the other; if there’s an unsettling conclusion that can be drawn from the same idea, it’s that there’s no final escape from the back-and-forth. We might as well enjoy the freefall while we can.

Ho Lin is the co-editor of Caveat Lector. His collection of short stories China Girl is now available on Amazon in paperback, hardcover and e-book formats.

Image: Sean Miner, from cover of "China Girl"