brad fox, “to remain nameless”

To Remain Nameless

Brad Fox
To Remain Nameless
(Rescue Press, 2020)


The narrative of the outside world in American writing is historically teleological in character, an attempt to answer thorny questions that might cast doubt on the American project: What is the non-American world for? Why should it exist? What does the rest of the world have that we do not, and does that mean that we are morally lacking in some way?

In nineteenth-century travel writing, the writing of the American abroad largely serves to emphasize the perfection of America itself. For Hawthorne and Mark Twain, Europe can be a helpful mirror for Americans, reminding the elect of the future of the preterition of the past. (Melville looks more deeply and sees not a mirror but a vertiginous abyss, the realization of how arbitrarily and shoddily constructed American assumptions were; the reading public was not pleased.) Another model might be found in Henry James, who found in Europe better subjects for himself: social complexity and aesthetic sensitivity lacking in America. He was more perceptive than anyone else and became European himself, followed by Gertrude Stein, who held on to her citizenship, thinking that she could remake Americans.

The most lasting book of the American abroad is one which goes entirely unread and unremembered except for its title, The Ugly American, which will never go away. Those who pick up Eugene Burdick & William J. Lederer’s book might be surprised to realize that the ugliness of the title is very literal: the hero of the novel is a rough-hewn American engineer living in an imaginary country in southeast Asia who — while the diplomatic corps are busy enjoying cocktails and servants and failing to understand anything at all — impresses the locals with his homespun ingenuity and common sense. We don’t have to be Communists, think the locals; we can live like this splendid ugly American man. And he can get rich! This book is why they started the Peace Corps.

The ugly Americans that followed were those of Eat, Pray, Love, My Crazy Year Abroad, seeing the rest of the world as objects for consumption for personal betterment, a way to self-definition. Then came Instagram, and then global travel ground to a halt. This comically oversimplifies the narrative, but the American narrative of the outside world has always been oversimplified. And now Brad Fox’s To Remain Nameless appears.

To Remain Nameless is a book that draws a period when the contours of twenty-first century geography had come firmly into view – cheap flights that went everywhere – but had not yet been fully subsumed by the Internet, the time before Google Maps on a phone promised to make the most exotic location immediately accessible – only a decade ago, but unreachable now. The time is soon after the Arab Spring, and there are presentiments of the world we live in now: Erdogan is consolidating power in Turkey, and Syria is heading towards collapse. Laura and Tess have been working with refugees and displaced people in the Balkans, Turkey, and Egypt, heirs to the mission of Lederer and Burdick, but working out their destinies for reasons entirely unrelated. They have been at their work to know that it can be hopeless, but they’re not quite jaded enough to give up. The novel is structured around Laura giving birth – back in New York to care for her dying mother, she unexpectedly becomes pregnant and asks her friend, based, at the moment, in Istanbul, to attend. Tess lets her mind wander over the long period of the birth, going over her history with Laura and the other lives that have intersected with theirs.

Laura’s giving birth is described in graphic detail and at length: while Tess’s attention wanders – perhaps 24 hours goes by in total – it returns, as it must, to her friend’s physical struggles in the delivery room. Tess thinks of other births that she has been present at; of her past with Laura; her own family, mostly her half-brother Max, her occasional companion in the Balkans before worryingly dropping out of touch at a monastery in Syria; and the people she has spent time with since leaving America. There is no climactic interaction between Laura and Tess: they are, at the moment, impossibly separated. But there is a shared experience: and shared experience is key to this book.

Shared experience is also a reflection of their work, repeated attempts to dive into the lives of those they are working with and living with – time spent laboriously learning the ins and outs of languages, and openness to cultural specificity, the overlap of cultures possible in the dawning years of the twenty-first century: a man born in Mexico of Syrian descent speaks words in Serbian over a computer in Beirut. The world they work in is full of pain, but also full of opportunities for those who open themselves up to it. Tess leaves the hospital looking for a meal and finds herself savoring terrible New York diner food, noting, while she waits for her takeout order, the young cook’s Greek, the story of travel across half the world that ends with her coffee, terrible in the way that only New York coffee can be. Back in America for a short visit, Tess can see more than she could before.

The individuals seen through Tess’s vision have an unintended dignity that’s not unlike what’s found in John Berger’s fiction. Or one might connect this book back to another nineteenth century American, Walt Whitman, who never managed to leave the country. Whitman’s ideas about democracy what America was or was not don’t come into play here. Rather, it’s his idea of adherence that comes into play: families make an anemic showing in this book (a dead mother, a half-brother), but there is a richness in elective affinities across cultures. The world of Laura and Tess is a social network of coworkers, friends, lovers before the dead hand of that idea reified brought the world we live in a decade later into being. Again this feels like a dispatch from a lost world where Facebook hadn’t yet abetted pogroms against the Rohingya.

Read now, To Remain Nameless is a book unexpectedly adrift in time, a book about Americans and their construction of identity through engagement with the wider world reaching readers at a time when an American passport is as close to useless as it has ever been. But a book structured around a birth – there are not so many – is inherently optimistic. Tess, in a moment of crisis:

To serve others, Tess thought. To live for others. To despise them, to have been disappointed, and still to work for them. To disbelieve in progress, in benefit, to think that everything backfires. So why do anything? (p. 23)

To Remain Nameless might be seen as a thinking through of this problem. Work as if you lived in the early days of a better country urged the late Alasdair Gray. Fox’s book might seem like a dispatch from an alternate history, one of better, more engaged people in a world less fraught than the one we live in now, a world dominated by ugly Americans who fail to understand anything for their gain and everyone else’s loss. But it is still our world.

november 1–15, 2020

Books

  • Iain Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  • Yuri Herrera, A Silent Fury, translated by Lisa Dillman
  • Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons, trans. by Lisa Dillman
  • Andrea Camilleri, The Safety Net, trans. Stephen Sartarelli
  • Manuel Puig, Heartbreak Tango, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine
  • Alexander Stille, Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic
  • Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy
  • Michael Robbins, Patricia Lockwood, Timothy Thornton, Modern Poets Two: Controlled Explosions
  • Julio Cortázar, Diary of Andrés Fava, trans. Anne McLean
  • James Sallis, Black Hornet
  • Severo Sarduy, Firefly, trans. Mark Fried
  • Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation
  • Theophilus Kwek, Giving Ground
  • Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem
  • Ron Padgett, Big Cabin
  • Rita Indiana, Tentacle, trans. Achy Obejas
  • Paul Legault, The Madeleine Poems
  • Rita Indiana, Made in Saturn, trans. Sydney Hutchinson
  • Ron Padgett, Alone and Not Alone

Films

  • Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, directed by Nicole Newnham & James Lebrecht
  • Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, dir. Werner Herzog

october 16–31, 2021

Books

  • Hiroko Oyamada, The Hole, translated by David Boyd
  • Severo Sarduy, Written on a Body, trans. Carol Maier
  • Severo Sarduy, Christ on the Rue Jacob, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine & Carol Maier
  • Severo Sarduy, From Cuba with a Song, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine
  • Ben Sonnenberg, Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy
  • Will Harris, Rendang
  • Nathalie Léger, Exposition, trans. Amanda DeMarco
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Untamed Shore
  • Nathalie Léger, The White Dress, trans. Natasha Lehrer
  • Susan Howe, The Quarry
  • Theophilus Kwek, Moving House

Films

  • On the Rocks, directed by Sofia Coppola
  • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, dir. Jason Woliner
  • Dick Johnson Is Dead, dir. Kirsten Johnson
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things, dir. Charlie Kaufman
  • Dick Johnson Is Dead, dir. Kirsten Johnson

Exhibits

  • “Wartime Artists of Vietnam: Drawings and Posters from the Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran Collection,” NUS Museum
  • “Wishful Images: When Microhistories Take Form,” NUS Museum
  • “Hu Yun: Another Diorama,” NUS Museum

mok zining, “the orchid folios”

Mok Zining
The Orchid Folios
(Ethos Books, Singapore; 2020)


I periodically read the fiction and poetry of Singapore, trying to be a good resident, ever hopeful that I will find something that I think is interesting. There’s a thriving literary industry, if not a profitable one, in Singapore (in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay as well as English, though there’s not much cross-translation); it’s generally competent, though most isn’t that inspiring, though that’s true of anywhere. But having read all Singaporean poetry, say, is still an achievable goal, if one has the desire to be so thorough. As an outsider making one’s way through the mass of Singaporean writing, it becomes possible to see why, for example, certain works would have been important historically; the contours of scenes present and past become visible. This type of reading is sociological rather than specifically aesthetic; that’s fine for my purposes, as one can read the literary productions of a culture as a way of coming to understand that culture. But what one ends up noticing when reading this way is the quirks: there’s a strong inclination towards science fiction over realism in contemporary Singaporean fiction, and Christianity – as subject and as a quarry for metaphor – shows up with astonishing frequency. These are books that are important to certain readerships and have their uses, though I’m not sure that I find them useful to me as a reader. In a world where a staggeringly high percentage of books are available nearly anywhere nearly instantaneously, there’s almost always something that seems more important for me to be reading.

I could, if pressed, come up with a handful of Singaporean books that I would recommend to non-Singaporean readers. I wish this number were bigger: Singapore is a place that’s probably more interesting than it imagines itself to be. The term that outsiders have a hard time getting around for Singapore is “boring”; much of the country could be mistaken for a well-heeled suburb of Los Angeles with a government that functions. Malaysia and Indonesia, twenty miles away on different directions, do not feel like that. What’s not immediately obvious, however, is that that feeling of boredom isn’t inherent; rather, it’s achieved. People successfully made Singapore boring. For me there’s an analogy to the American Midwest, a place that’s similarly boring. One looks at hundreds of miles of identical fields of corn or wheat or soybeans and forgets that the land wasn’t a terra nullius: there are thousands of years of human history in the Midwest – and a genocide! – that are forgotten, if they were ever remembered, when we look at the land and call it boring. The seeming blandness of Singapore functions similarly, though it’s complicated by colonialism and the struggle for independence. Singapore has done very well for itself since independence, though it’s done astonishingly little reflection on what it means to have escaped colonialism. Walking past police stations, for example, one sees posters congratulating the Singapore police on their two-hundredth anniversary. This is strange: the police spent three-quarters of their history keeping the non-white populations down. But this is not out of character. Stamford Raffles, who signed off on the acquisition of the island for the British Empire, is largely celebrated for having created something out of nothing, that something being today’s Singapore.

Which is all by way of introduction to Mok Zining’s The Orchid Folios, which uses the orchid as a lens to look at the past and present of Singapore, managing by this to present a clearer picture of what the country is like than any other recent volume I can think of. This is a book probably best considered as poetry, though it’s full of historical documents and illustrations, some annotated, and there are sections of what appears to be fiction. The approach wouldn’t feel out of place in the contemporary visual arts world, one can imagine a version of this book presented as an installation; the word hybrid feels too easy but is entirely apt. Susan Howe in “Sorting Facts” gets at the sort of language this is, mutatis mutandis:

. . . I am an American poet writing in the English language. I have loved watching films all my life. I work in the poetic documentary form, but didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker.

(in The Quarry, p. 94)

It might be easiest to start by looking at how The Orchid Folios deals with the structure of history, which isn’t dissimilar to Howe’s investigations into American literary history. One of the book’s narrative threads starts in 1893, when Henry Ridley, director of the Singapore Botanical Garden, sends a new orchid hybrid back to London where it is acclaimed. That orchid, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, would become Singapore’s national flower in 1981; the orchid has been embraced by the country as a symbol, and Singapore has gone on to create hybrid orchids for any number of visiting dignitaries. (Margaret Thatcher was given her own orchid.) Mostly occluded in this telling is the person who was actually responsible for the initial hybridization – not Ridley, but one Agnes Joaquim, a woman of Armenian descent, who has, aside from her name, almost entirely vanished from history. Glory goes to the structures of power; one remembers that the Singapore Botanical Gardens, one of the glories of the country, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, was started not to be the pleasure garden that it’s become, but rather to find ways for the Empire to exploit the vegetation of the tropics. Now it’s the national center for orchid breeding.

Besides this narrative, Mok excerpts documents concerning the founding of Singapore. The official narrative can be found inscribed on a plinth under a statue by the Singapore River in four languages:

ON THIS HISTORIC SITE
SIR THOMAS STAMFORD RAFFLES
FIRST LANDED IN SINGAPORE
ON 28TH JANUARY 1810
AND WITH GENUS AND PERCEPTION
CHANGED THE DESTINY OF SINGAPORE
FROM AN OBSCURE FISHING VILLAGE
TO A GREAT SEAPORT AND
MODERN METROPOLIS.

Although this feels like a colonial relic, a note points out that this monument was actually added in 1972, after the country had become fully independent. This is a narrative complicated by actual history: in a letter from Raffles to his patron in 1819, Mok blacks out a phrase describing the situation of the island and places it on the facing page, pointing out that Raffles didn’t think of Singapore as an “obscure fishing village”:

the site of the ancient maritime capital of the Malays, and within the walls of these fortifications, raised not less than six centuries ago,

Four years later, Raffles, temporarily triumphing over death, again writes to his patron and again Mok excerpts a bit of his letter:

where, if my bones must remain in the East, they would have the honour of mixing with the ashes of the Malayan kings, and the result has been, that instead of dying, I have almost entirely recovered.

In between Raffles’s correspondence, he has been laying out a plan for the city he imagines, where different ethnic groups will be carefully segregated; he is angry at William Farquahar, his lieutenant – and the man who did most of the actual work involved in founding the colony – for neglecting his plan. It is not exactly novel, of course, to be pointing out the racism and wrong-headedness of the British colonial project. What Mok is more interested in is how things can be selectively forgotten; in Singapore’s case for seemingly pragmatic reasons. Another quotation, from government minister S. Rajaratnam in 1984, where he explains that Singapore’s history before 1819 is lost to the mists of time:

. . . from our point of view, to push a Singaporean’s historic awareness beyond 1819 would have been a misuse of history; to plunge Singapore into the kind of genocidal madness that racial, communal and religious imperialism is today devastating so many underdeveloped and even developed countries.

Neocolonialism succeeds colonialism; what can be preserved and what is forgotten are powers reserved to the state. Raffles wasn’t actually in Singapore long enough to do anything terribly bad – his time in Java is another story – so he can be kept around. On another level, contemporary Singapore takes from the British Empire the core of its legal code; it also takes (and upholds) the Empire’s Victorian racial distinctions, slotting everyone into the CMIO (Chinese/­Malay/­Indian/­Other) framework that the British used, dumping those that can’t fit into a named category – or those that go in between – into “other.” Something similar happens with Singapore’s linguistic policies, which also come under scrutiny in this book.

At the same time, Singapore does celebrate – at least on paper, at least with orchids – the idea of hybridity as being central to the identity of the nation. There are tensions here on multiple levels, a biological messiness pulling against official urge to structure. Using the orchid, Mok casts this in botanical terms: growth can be defined in a monopodial way, which notates the plant growing from root to flower:

[root] [main stem] [leaf] [inflorescence]

A few pages later, however, the sympodial model of growth is described, which “allows variation of thought / to coexist as rhythmic / shoots.” The monopodial diagram is graphically complicated: while there is always a root, what were “main stem,” “leaf,” and “inflorescence” in the monopodial arrangement can here be a variety of different things: “leaf / pseudobulb / eye / rhizome / rhizome / new root”. A straight line becomes multidimensional: the growth of an orchid is more complex than the monopodial model allows. In the real world, boundaries are not as clear as we’d like to imagine. A leaf may be a root; the boundaries between plants are nebulous. A statement may be read in multiple ways. Legal categories don’t map on to biological realities. Language will always escape any structures authorities put up for it.

My treatment of this book is blunter than it needs to be, attempting to present it to an audience that might not be familiar with Singapore; I’m giving short shrift to much of the content of the book as well as most of its charms. Mok flips through forms deftly – there’s a page that might be torn from Laurence Sterne – but the result is a book that’s accessible but deep. This is a book that resembles those of Claudia Rankine, Nathalie Léger, and Sven Lindqvist (as suggested above); at the same time, it doesn’t presume knowledge of the literary traditions that it springs from, which might help it find a local readership. It’s also, necessarily, a delicate book: clearly attributed quotations are necessary to interrogate the history of a country that doesn’t have freedom of the press. (Local playwright Alfian Sa’at, who provides an epigraph for the book, was bafflingly demonized in the recent election for not loving Singapore enough; one might argue that one reason for the preponderance of science fiction in Singapore fiction is its useful indirection.)

Mok uses poetry and the placement of words and images on the pages as ways to think through the world she lives in. It’s a valuable book, and I’m curious what the local response will be. But this is a book that deserves an audience outside of Singapore as well, and it deserves attention.

october 1–15, 2020

Books

  • Adedayo Adeyemi Agarau, The Origin of Name
  • Nkateko Masinga, Psalm for Chrysanthemums
  • Fatima Camara, YellowLine
  • Henneh Kyereh Kwaku, Revolution of the Scavengers
  • Afua Ansong, Try Kissing God
  • Iris Murdoch, The Good Apprentice
  • J. G. Farrell, The Singapore Grip
  • Mok Zining, The Orchid Folios
  • Eka Kurniawan, Kitchen Curse, translated by Annie Tucker, Tiffany Tsao, Maggie Tiojakin & Benedict Anderson
  • Ray Bradbury, Killer, Come Back to Me
  • Eugene Ostashevsky, Iterature
  • Severo Sarduy, For Voice, trans. Philip Barnard
  • Juan Cárdenas, Ornamental, trans. Lizzie Davis

Films

  • My Octopus Teacher, directed by Pippa Ehrlich & James Reed
  • Pinocchio, dir. Matteo Garrone

september 16–30, 2020

Books

  • The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Volume 3, selected and translated by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, Rakesh Khanna, V. Vinod & Nirmal Rajagopalan
  • Sadia Hassan, Enumeration
  • Jamila Osman, A Girl Is a Sovereign State
  • Safia Jama, Notes on Resilience
  • Tove Jansson, Fair Play, trans. Thomas Teal
  • Michelle K. Angwenyi, Gray Latitudes
  • Nadra Mabrouk, Measurement of Holy
  • Tryphena Yeboah, A Mouthful of Home
  • W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell
  • Sam Greenlee, The Spook Who Sat by the Door
  • Stanisław Lem, The Star Diaries, trans. Michael Kandel
  • Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress, trans. Michael Kandel
  • Stanisław Lem, Memoirs of a Space Traveler, trans. Joel Stern, Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek & Antonia Lloyd-Jones
  • Edmund White, A Saint from Texas
  • Iris Murdoch, The Book and the Brotherhood
  • Jenny Offill, Weather

Films

  • Esto no es Berlín (This Is Not Berlin), directed by Hari Sama
  • El sueño de Mara’akame (Mara’akame’s Dream), dir. Federico Cecchetti

september 1–15, 2020

Books

  • P. G. Wodehouse, Mike & Psmith
  • P. G. Wodehouse, Psmith, Journalist
  • Gianni Rodari, Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto, translated by Anthony Shugaar
  • Daljit Nagra, Look We Have Coming to Dover!
  • Daljit Nagra, Tippoo Sultans Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!!
  • P. G. Wodehouse, Psmith in the City
  • Daljit Nagra, British Museum
  • Lee Lozano, Notebooks 1967–70
  • David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
  • Ben Katchor, The Dairy Restaurant
  • Stanisław Lem, Return from the Stars, trans. Barbara Marszal & Frank Simpson

Films

  • Tread, directed by Paul Solet
  • The Baron of Arizona, dir. Samuel Fuller

august 16–31, 2020

Books

  • James Sallis, Moth
  • Agustina Bazterrica, Tender is the Flesh, translated by Sarah Moses
  • Alice Oswald, Woods Etc.
  • Michael Glover, John Ruskin: An Idiosyncratic Dictionary Encompassing His Passions, His Delusions & His Prophecies
  • Kathryn Hummel, Lamentville
  • Alvin Pang, What Gives Us Our Names
  • Joshua Ip & Martin Villanueva, editors, 11 × 9: Co-Authored Poetry from the Philippines and Singapore
  • Annaliza Bakri, ed., Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit: An Anthology
  • Stephanie Anderson, In the Key of Those Who Can No Longer Organize Their Environments
  • Renee Gladman, Houses of Ravicka
  • Jean Echenoz, We Three, trans. Jesse Anderson
  • Jean Echenoz, Special Envoy, trans. Sam Taylor
  • Cyril Wong, Animal Season
  • Ng Yi-Sheng, Black Waters, Pink Sands
  • Jean Echenoz, Piano, trans. Mark Polizzotti
  • Patrick Modiano, Suspended Sentences, trans. Mark Polizzotti
  • Alice Oswald, The Thing in the Gap Stone Stile

Films

  • Radioactive, directed by Marjane Satrapi
  • Tesla, dir. Michael Almereyda
  • Sicilia!, dir. Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub

august 1–15, 2020

Books

  • Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin, translated by Niall Sellar
  • Volker Kutscher, The Silent Death, trans. Niall Sellar
  • James Sallis, The Long-Legged Fly
  • The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, trans. Pritham K. Chakravarthy

Films

  • Planet of the Apes, directed by Tim Burton
  • Batman, dir. Tim Burton
  • Stan & Ollie, dir. Jon S. Baird
  • Never Rarely Sometimes Always, dir. Eliza Hittman
  • The Proposal, dir. Jill Magid

july 16–31, 2020

Books

  • Percival Everett, Walk Me to the Distance
  • Enrico Pellegrini, Something Great and Beautiful
  • Amina Cain, Indelicacy
  • Jean Echenoz, 1914, translated by Linda Coverdale
  • Ngaio Marsh, When in Rome
  • Jean Echenoz, The Queen’s Caprice, trans. Linda Coverdale
  • Jean Echenoz, Big Blondes, trans. Mark Polizzotti
  • Jean Echenoz, Cherokee, trans. Mark Polizzotti

Films

  • The More the Merrier, directed by George Stevens
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield, dir. Armando Iannucci
  • Billy Madison, dir. Tama Davis
  • Family Romance LLC, dir. Werner Herzog
  • Planet of the Apes, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner