The combination of this week's 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and Evan Osnos's engaging new book Age of Ambition drew me back to an old photo library. I made my first (and thus far only...) visit to China three years ago this September. Since I'd embargoed most of my photos from that trip, I choose now to share a few (click through for a handful of images from around that central part of Beijing).
The most thoughtful things I've read to help understand this dark anniversary opened a bit more the tiny window I saw through while there. Massive overstatement alert ---> China moved on quickly and changed massively after events in 1989. Yet when I look at pictures of the aftermath, I'm shocked in many cases for the first time by the scale of it all. If the events of "liu si" (the term for June 4th) come up, most people feign ignorance or look for a polite segway elsewhere. Here, there, or anywhere. The best advice I was given before visiting China was simple - "don't talk politics." Whether or not that sounds cowardly, the coping mechanism worked well.
Since I still don't know what to say...I'll dramatically spin the globe to recap a lit event I'm still digesting. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard came to Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company earlier this week. The release of the 3rd English-translated book in Knausgaard's six volume autobiographical "novel" (more on that in a bit) drew him to the United States for a brief tour - just L.A., Seattle and NYC stops before returning home in a week as he told me in the book signing line after his reading. This rare event kicked me square in the brainpan. Leave it to a somewhat reluctantly self-aware Norwegian to offer a powerful glimpse of how much we all stand to still learn about our skills and motives.
To drill down a bit...Knausgaard offered a disarming, great reading. He proved that banality can be deeply meaningful. He uttered a beautiful mantra in passing that I will borrow and try to use with attribution for some time to come - "self-criticism kills everything." He gave insights great and small, personal and universal, hopeful and darkly prescient to a standing room only crowd in a sweltering basement. Knausgaard's opus is called "My Struggle" and in the original Norwegian would not have been called a memoir. Because there is no such literary category in Norway. In American, we call it "Fiction" because we get all weird and wonky about storytellers manipulating their memory. Some call his work boring - he joked about it in fully owning up to the characterization. It is also deep, rare, and written in a twisting stream-of-consciousness. Hypnotic might be a great description. But I should stop there, because I have much more to read of his "Struggle." Needless to say, I am an immediate admirer and fascinated empath with respect to what Knausgaard has done in this work.
Seattle gets more than its share of authors with real star power jaunting across the stage. Knausgaard's appearance was something quite otherwise, however. This was a Salinger moment. If he comes anywhere in North America when Book 4 gets translated, I suspect Seattle may once again float up near the top of a very short list. But I would not count on him coming back, America. If you have the rare chance to see Knausgaard, do not let that pass without taking great pains to get there. No matter what happens with his work (or his personal struggles with success and happiness), I am quite pleased to have spoken with him briefly while he sat at what looked like the loneliest signing table imaginable...all while a line of dozens and dozens of fans waited for their chance to also thank him for doing us a solid by swinging through town.