Arriving without a Limousine

At the English Department's annual banquet last April, poet Yuko Taniguchi was our featured speaker.  Her talk is printed below.


               
Yuko Taniguchi '98

 

I am honored to be invited here tonight.  I did not receive any specific guidelines for tonight's speech, unlike all the research papers I did when I was a student here at St. Benedict's.  The English Department must think that I can make my own decisions.  Only six years ago, I graduated from St. Ben's.  It may be a little too soon to trust a former student with such an open invitation.

Tonight, I arrived here without a limousine.  I drove my own car, a black Toyota Corolla, covered with dirt because it has not been washed for the last three weeks.  The inside is even worse: dusty dashboard, empty bottles of soda on the floor, CDs in mismatched cases on the passenger seat, fingerprinted windows, and the back seat covered with my yellow lab's fur.

You are probably not surprised that I arrived here with an ordinary car, although maybe you did not expect it to be so dirty.  A limousine is used for an extravagant event like going to the academy awards or to your own wedding.  But when I arrived at St. Ben's for the first time as a first-year student, I arrived in a limousine.  Before coming to St. Ben's, I went to a private girls' boarding high school near Baltimore, Maryland, for three years.  Limousines were always chartered for students' transportation going to the airport because, surprisingly, a limousine, which had a set price hourly, was always cheaper than a taxi.  I was careful about saving money.  So when I arrived at the Minneapolis airport, where no friends or family waited for me, I checked the price differences between the taxi ($170) and the limousine ($120).

Driving up to St. Ben's in a limousine on Highway 94 was rather strange.  I looked around and saw nothing but plain brown corn fields, endless gray sky, and the straight road ahead of me.  I  felt lonely and out of place.  We did not pass any other limousines heading to St. Ben's, which also seemed strange since all first-year students were supposed to be arriving that day.  The driver, dressed in a black suit and tie, told me that he usually doesn't get calls from college students to drive them to college.  If you can imagine a long black limousine, slowly entering the college campus on the first day, passing the students and parents unloading their boxes and bags from their trucks and cars, perhaps you can see why my arrival received attention from others.  My driver parked by Mary Commons.  He politely opened the door for me and asked me which dormitory I was headed to.  Then he kindly carried my big purple suitcase, and we walked into Aurora Hall.  Everyone stared at us, especially at the overdressed driver who followed me like a servant.  As I walked into my room, I met my roommate, who shook my hand and looked at my driver with puzzlement.  He introduced himself as my driver, which was certainly true; but she understood him to be my private driver.  When I gave him money in a white envelope, he did not even check its amount.  Instead, he thanked me and hurried out of my room as quickly as he could.

My arrival made people wonder about me.  Who is she? She must be from a wealthy family, perhaps the daughter of Mitsubishi or some other wealthy Japanese businessman.  Eventually, people discovered that my parents were just an ordinary middle-class couple, that my last name is Taniguchi, not Mitsubishi, and that I earned enough to pay for the ride in a limousine by working at a Mitsubishi air conditioning factory during the summer.  People were disappointed with my real identity.

My memory of being carried in a limousine and driving through the vast land of Minnesota has returned to me over and over.  Only in retrospect does the combination of my exotic arrival in a limousine at a humble college setting seem comical.  But back then, my odd arrival raised a serious question: How do I, the complete outsider, survive in the middle of this lonely land?  Entering into an unfamiliar setting comes with a sense of awkwardness and displacement.  I felt like a bump on a smooth cloth, and I struggled with being far away from my familiar life style in larger cities.  I tried to remind myself of why I had come to Minnesota.  My plan was to attend high school on the East, college in the Midwest, and graduate school in the West.  Then, having crossed the United States, I would return to Japan.  But looking at the enormous corn field which disappeared into complete blackness at night, I lost confidence about surviving more than a few months at St. Ben's.

Still, I insisted to myself that I be patient with my anxiety and loneliness here in Minnesota.  I tried to become familiar with my new setting.  At St. Ben's, I was a hard working and good student, although far from being one with all As and a high GPA.  As a non-native speaker, I needed more time to accomplish everything, especially reading and writing.  I learned to begin writing essays immediately after the assignment was handed to me and to complete the first draft at least one week before the due date so that I could go to the Writing Center to discuss grammatical issues, especially prepositions and articles.

 

 

The most challenging part of the writing process was staring at the blank page. . . .

 

But I realized that grammatical editing was rather fixable as long as I was determined to make my writing clean and to work with other people.  The most challenging part of the writing process was staring at the blank page and wondering how I could give shape to my ideas by composing sentences.  I knew exactly what I wanted to write, but once my ideas became paragraphs, they did not convey the same urgency I felt in my mind.  I wrote, "We must not be judgmental toward others."  Everyone knows this, of course; but to see it as a bare statement is boring.

Soon I realized that writing resembled translating.  I had worked as a translator during the summer.  I remembered the frustration that had accompanied the process of translating a document from Japanese to English.  Sometimes, elements that the Japanese language captured very well could not be recaptured in English.  Although the meaning might be the same, an English-speaking audience would not experience the same fullness of meaning from the translated material.  The translator's task is to discover a way for the translated materials to provide a similar effect as the original material without distorting its meaning.  I felt this same frustration about transforming ideas from my mind onto paper.  I have since come to realize that I was learning two languages: English and writing.

Creating something out of nothing is always a struggle.  For a while, I resisted this process of facing a blank page and struggling with nothingness.  Writing reminded me of gazing at the plain field of Minnesota from the limousine's window and wondering what would become of me.  Patience and determination were required of me both for living in Minnesota and for writing.  Eventually my persistence led to the discovery of a new life style in Minnesota and of my voice in writing.

Facing the blank page is relevant to any learning process.  When we begin new jobs, projects, or activities, a sense of loss accompanies us.  Perhaps the patience and determination that we learn from writing serves as an important element for all learning processes.  Writing often reminded me of playing piano.  At five years old, I began playing piano.  Every time I faced a new piece with many black notes jumping up and down, I felt a sense of anxiety, not knowing how to begin teaching my fingers to master all the notes.  I had a wonderful piano teacher who told me that playing notes perfectly is not what music is about.  Mrs. Elliot added, "You are also expected to master the notes, of course.  After mastering the techniques, you are expected to do more by using the techniques you learned."  Then wrinkles gathered on her forehead and she said, "But sometimes mastering techniques makes us lose our focus because we want to present our techniques.  Don't get lost in your technical ability."

Mrs. Elliot's words became my example of how things often exist in a paradoxical state: techniques don't represent the art, but we need to master the techniques to arrive at the art.  Her urging began to make special sense while I was writing.  Perhaps once we overcome the blank paper, writing remains something in between mastering the techniques and not getting lost in them.

As difficult and embarrassing as my arrival at St. Ben's was, the fact of being an outsider taught me the important lesson of patience.  It also reminded me that a sense of loss and vast emptiness lies before us whenever we start something.  We discover how to present our voice and vision through our willingness to search the depths of our mind. Life in Minnesota is much more than corn fields, a truth I eventually learned by living here.  My lonely arrival became a metaphor for how everything begins.  Moreover, much of college life is like being carried in a limousine. The college is a great vehicle that carries us while we are introduced to knowledge.  Still, although we learn a great deal and grow, we do have to get off the ride eventually.  By then, not only I but also my entire class faced the vast land of Minnesota and asked, "What 's next?  How do we begin?"

 

 

 

[A] sense of loss and vast emptiness lies before us whenever we start something.

After graduating from St. Ben's, I went to the University of Minnesota for its MFA Creative Writing program, specifically for poetry.  I was grateful that I already understood the struggle of writing and its long process. Through working with the poets at the University of Minnesota, I faced numerous criticisms that raised difficult questions.  Michael Dennis Browne said to me, "Yuko, your writing is too complicated.  A poem should be complex, not complicated."  Ray Gonzalez asked me, "Yuko, do you know why this poem should be written? Unless you know that, you will not know how to revise this poem."  Jim Moore said, "This poem wants to be mysterious, but instead it is confusing."  What is the difference between a poem's being complex and complicated?  How does a poem become mysterious without being confusing?  How do I discover the purpose of a poem's existence?  Is a poem written because it must exist?  Can I write a poem just because I want to?  Ray Gonzalez replied: "You don't have to know the purpose of each poem while you are writing it; but when you have something on paper, then you should find out its reason for being written."  Perhaps a poem is written based on logic.  Yet Michael Dennis Browne said, "I love this poem, Yuko, because it's so strange, and I think you are a strange woman.  How did you think like this?"  So I learned that strangeness is welcomed, but only in the right way.  Jim Moore added, "This poem is unnecessarily strange, for obviously trying to be strange.  A poem can be strange but cannot try to be strange."

Over the years, I have come to value three basic questions in writing poems: Why did I write this poem?  What is this poem trying to do?  Why would others want to read this poem?  I constantly think about my reason for writing and the meanings of each poem.  It is my responsibility to know why I do what I do.  But why should others read my poems?

This final question followed me for a long time.  It troubled me when Foreign Wife Elegy, my collection of poetry, was about to be published.  Publication promises reaching out to more people, which means that not only do I ask strangers to see my vision, to imagine the way I do, but also to spend $14 plus tax to read my poems.  Why would anyone want to do this?

After the publication of my book and several readings, I was surprised by people's response.  Some people came to the reading with the corners of several pages folded, eager to talk about details that they liked.  One man asked me to circle a sentence from one of the poems in the book and autograph my name right next to it. The sentence was "Elegy resembles prelude."  He explained: "To me, elegy is a song for a deceased one, whereas prelude is usually an introduction.  But I think your statement is true.  Although elegy and prelude are the opposite, they resemble each other.  When you lose someone, you face ending and beginning at the same time.  You grieve with the ending, not knowing how to begin again, but eventually you have to begin your new life.  I love the idea of elegy resembling prelude for its hopefulness."  Our brief interaction revealed that this man knew exactly how it felt to face elegy and prelude at the same time.

Between this man, who was born and raised in Minnesota and loves hunting and ice fishing, and me, who didn't know that going to college in a limousine was an odd thing, we may not agree about which restaurant to go to.  But we both certainly understood that "Elegy resembles prelude."  We could relate to how lonely and lost we feel when we begin something because we keep remembering the end of something that was dear to us.

People read my work for various reasons, but at least I know why I ask people to imagine.  We don't know what we have not experienced.  But we can always imagine others' lives.  If we haven't lost a father, we don't know what kind of pain we would actually feel.  But we can imagine such pain to the point that we almost know the pain.  In a difficult situation, of course, we may say that something is unimaginable.  Doing so, however, often means we are unwilling to imagine.  Imagination serves as a bridge to relate to others' experiences, and willingness to relate to others makes us more compassionate beings.

Then can we say that imagination is essential to compassion?  Perhaps it seems strange to claim that the act of imagining is part of compassion.  Yet when we imagine and relate to others' lives, we sacrifice a part of ourselves for a moment.  We do so for the sake of imagining others' situations.  You are not a repressed woman from the south; your parents are not dead; you didn't kill a man nor did you keep his dead body in the bedroom for years.  But when you read "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner, you are asked to imagine all these unpleasant details.  To understand Emily, you are asked to give up your happiness for a moment to think about her tragic life.  For me, this willingness to set oneself aside to engage with the other is a compassionate act.

 

 

 

[Is] imagination essential to compassion?

Reading acknowledges the existence of other cultures, theories, and ways of thinking.  It also reminds us that we are a part of a community.  In a community where multiple ideas are addressed, how do we begin to understand each other?  How much imagining do we have to do to understand something that we have not experienced?  How much happiness do we have to give up to relate to others' worlds?  Reading requires us to face these difficult questions.

I was thrilled to be invited to speak tonight at this English Department banquet, not because I have something important to say but because I could share my gratitude and admiration for your hard work, for your thinking and imagining as readers, and for enduring your struggle with the writing process.  In the end, I hope that you do not think about writing only as an activity of struggle.  There is also immense joy in completing a project and in understanding what it means to create something out of nothing.  I hope that you are as addicted to this joy as I am.