Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Tale of Three Cities: Taipei, Beijing, Seoul

Outside the humble Beijing Capital Library
I've just returned, woozy and a little waxen, from Australian Writers Week (AWW) 2015. I have an extra suitcase for gifts. And business cards.

Previous AWW tours have focused on Beijing and other Chinese cities, but this year's itinerary was enlarged: I jetted to Taiwan and South Korea alongside China. We stuffed a great deal into the little meat sack of Damon.

With Cathy Raper
My first stop was Taiwan, staying at the Woolloomooloo guest house and restaurant.  My Japanese-style tatami room was small but very comfortable, and I enjoyed the best coffee of my trip in the café downstairs: a neat short macchiato. Hats off to the owner, Australian-Taiwanese architect Jimmy Yang.

I met with the Australian Representative in Taiwan, Cathy Raper, and had a short chat about the island's history and politics.

Then I was off to the National University of Taiwan, to give a workshop and lecture on philosophy. The chief point of my talk and questions was to get students thinking about the relationships between scholarship and everyday life; how each informs the other (or doesn't). I used examples from authors including Seneca and Nietzsche. (I wanted to introduce them to the poetry of Alison Croggon, but language made it awkward.)

One of the discussions, nudged along by Professor JJ Yuann, concerned the verbosity of the safe: how freedom often encourages a certain bellicose chatter, as opposed to the stoic quiet of those struggling with empire.
With Professor JJ Yuann and students, Taiwan National University
After the class, Professor Yuann joined me for a casual meeting with Taiwanese academics, publishers and arts professionals. Then it was time for a quick radio interview on my How to Think About Exercise.

Sweating at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial
Fittingly, I then took myself off for a brief jog to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, then a jaunt on the subway to the amazing Palace Museum, which holds an enormous collection of Chinese antiquities and art. My favourite part: the extraordinary 'Along the River During Qingming Festival'. Somewhere between Bruegel, Pepys and Where's Wally, it's an incredible historical document.

My next gig was at Woolloomooloo: a reading of My Nanna is a Ninja, plus some games. My host was children's book guru and local author Charlene Lai.

After this, but not before an sumptuous Taiwanese lunch (highlight: mullet roe with gourd and radish slices) with Jimmy Yang and Charlene, was another My Nanna is a Ninja reading: at the Taipei Public Library. Then it was time to leave this intriguing Chinese island...
Lightning moves at Taipei Public Library

...for the Chinese mainland. And not just China: Beijing, the enormous capital. I say 'enormous', though of course I saw chiefly the Opposite House hotel, taxis, shops and the festival rooms. But what Henry James wrote of London seems apt for Beijing:
Practically, of course, one lives in a quarter, in a plot; but in imagination, and by a constant mental  act of reference the sympathizing resident inhabits the whole--and it is only of him that I deem it worth while to speak. He fancies himself, as they say, for being a particle in so unequalled an aggregation; and its immeasurable circumference, even though unvisited and lost in smoke, gives him the sense of a social, an intellectual margin. 
My first events were two more readings of My Nanna is a Ninja, for the Bookworm literary festival. One at iQiyi cafe, then another at the huge Beijing Capital Library.

The former was relatively quiet; the second, a riot. Their discipline seemingly undone by my games, the children took to the stage--quite literally. My translator, Christine, worked tirelessly to explain the ideas and words, and control the crowd.

When 'an intimate reading' means toddlers on your knees: Beijing Capital Library
That night I had dinner with novelist AJ Betts, author/illustrator Frané Lessac and author Mark Greenwood. We had Peking duck. In Peking. (And it was very good.)

Portable magic: keeping oxygen in
a dome
Next was a session on How to Think About Exercise, with final years at the British School of Beijing. Some fascinating reflections on embodiment and social values, including a revelation: teenagers don't like to sprint alone. Part of the class was inside the school's dome: a sealed gymnasium, so the kids can do sports without breathing in Beijing's polluted air.

From this quite privileged institution, I was off to Mingyuan: one of Beijing's migrant schools. These were the children of rural parents who had moved to Beijing looking for work, forfeiting medical and educational access. The Migrant Children's Foundation, a charity, provides schooling, basic equipment and uniforms.

I arrived while the younger grades were napping, but my class were year fives--and they were awesome. After the quiz and games, they were quick to identify English words, and answer questions about the characters and story of My Nanna is a Ninja. Their questions, like their drawing and colouring, were careful but fun. After a sneak preview of My Pop is a Pirate, we ended with a quick photo outside, alongside the whitewashed buildings and hard playground.

With the kids from Mingyuan migrant school, Bejing
Then I met with AJ Betts and novelist Brooke Davis to chat with two Chinese authors: A Yi and Miao Wei. Nicky Harman, from Paper Republic, was also taking tea with us. While Paper Republic translator Eric Abrahamsen was relaxed and very clear, it took some time to warm up: the mediated talk does not come naturally. Nonetheless, we learned a little about the logistics of writing life in China, as well as some history of literature. A great and rare chance to peer behind the glossy stickers, including at the twin censorship pressures of politics and commerce. Another radio interview followed, with 774 Beijing. (I cannot remember what I said, but I know I said it quickly.)

Reading from Voltaire's Vine, with
DV, XNE, CA and MC
The final event of the day was a panel at the Bookwork literary festival, with fiction writers: Mary Costello from Ireland, Clare Azzopardi from Malta and Xi Ni Er from Singapore. Daniel Vuillermin was our host.

I can't convey the variety and nuance of each, but all were marked by a masterful brevity; the willingness to let the audience work, instead of condescending with detail.

Discussion turned to gender in the Q and A afterwards, and it was intriguing to hear the debates cross several continents.

The next morning I took myself off for a jog: just a few kilometres to a local park. But what was green on the map was actually concrete: an artificial lake (with real ducks). It was nice to actually get a brief feel for the neighbourhood, as well as testing my mask.

Jogging in Beijing on an officially 'Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups' morning
(the highest level isapparently 'Crazy Bad')
After this, AJ, Brooke and I were back together at Renmin University's Centre for Australian Studies. We each gave a reading, punctuated by autobiographical notes, then answered questions.

There was a strong note of grief and horror to the stories, which gave a depth to laughter when it happened (and, with AJ and Brooke's well-balanced novels, it wasn't long coming).
At Renmin University with AJ Betts, Brooke Davis, staff and students
At the soirée, doing soirée things
The evening ended with a soirée at the Australian ambassador's residence, where I chatted briefly to the ambassador Frances Adamson and others, and finally met author Jennifer Mills, an Australian expatriate in Beijing. There was chicken, and it and I got quickly acquainted.

My final evening in Bejing, after the soirée, was a poetry reading by poet, translator and raconteur Willis Barnstone. Having just devoted weeks to Borges, it was a nice surprise to meet someone who knew the Argentine author well--who lived across the road, in fact.


Busy stillness: Yeonhui art space,
view from the stage
And then: Korea. After a chat with staff from the Australian Embassy, including the Australia-Korea Foundation, I visted the Yeonhui art space, in Seoul.

A combination of writers' residence, library and school, Yeonhui is a perfect retreat: close to amenities, but quiet and cultivated. (There is a photo of Nic Low, who interviewed me for The Monthly, on the window of the foreign writers' building.)

The next tour was Nami Island, which is ludicrous: a resort isle, artificially divided from the coast, about an hour's drive from Seoul. It has everything. A museum of ancient and international musical instruments, a pop music museum, several performance stages, public artworks, restaurants, wild animals (including emus), galleries, pottery kiln, gardens a massive children's library, and more.

The children's library, Nami island
Originally planned by founder Mr Min as a resort for American officers, it is now a cultural centre of Korea, and a very popular tourism spot for locals and others in Asia. It is basically a city of art, which has comically declared its cultural independence from the rest of Korea. I was invited to decorate a vase, choosing to paint a pen and message: wanted: good readers.

The next day I had two more My Nanna is a Ninja gigs: at Kimpo and Incheon kindergartens. Hosted partly by Awesome World, who've published the Korean translation, these events were hugely entertaining. The children and teachers of Kimpo kindergarten had clearly devoted many days to the visit, and I was gobsmacked by their letters, drawings, buntings and written questions. I had discovered the world of the ninja nanna--ten thousand kilometres from home. It was a blast to hear my story in Korean, and the children reading along in parts.

Reading "Ninja Halmeoni" (Ninja Grandmother) to the Kimpo kindergarten kids
Drawings, letters to the ninja nanna, and questions for the author, Kimpo kindergarten
After this I had a free day, which was devoted to recovering from the previous days, finding gifts for my family, and not collapsing.

Which brings me to today: grateful for the chance to enjoy so many impressions, curious to know more, and sharply aware of my own position as one of Henry James's 'particles' in a much larger collection.

Friday, March 13, 2015

On curiosity

My most recent Canberra Times column was published today: 'Here's cultivating curiosity... Why's that, you ask?' A sample:
David Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, argued that curiosity is the thrill of mental exertion. This is why those who are curious find no joy in simple addition or the recitation of historical facts: it's not that 40 + 29 doesn't equal 69, or that Caesar didn't cross the Rubicon, but that reception of these truths alone is unchallenging.
Hume also pointed out that curiosity often seeks important truths. Not because these are somehow more exciting, but because this sense of worth aids concentration. "When we are careless and inattentive," Hume wrote, "the same action of the understanding has no effect upon us, nor is able to convey any of that satisfaction". These truths may not actually be epic or greatly practical, and the curious person might be highly misanthropic. But the idea of importance is enough to keep them occupied. The student tells himself his studies of late Heidegger are vital for civilisation but his chief motive is a rightful fascination with the nature of art, for example. 
Curiosity, in this light, is neither professional duty nor principled discovery. Certainly someone curious might also be a fine scholar or social reformer: Leonard Woolf comes to mind. But, if Hume's right, curiosity need not have any relationship to professional competency or justice. It is simply a disposition to finding pleasure in mental labour. Sometimes this leads to novels or medicines, other times to a life of quiet but unproductive poking about.
(Image: painting by Allan Ramsay)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Magic Pen

Only in fantasy: the horny green harem from Venus
I've a review of Dylan Horrocks's marvellous graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen in The Age and Herald. In 'Magic Pen delivers a graphic masterpiece', I discuss fantasy, art and their sometimes troubling pairing. A sample:
Horrocks' protagonist, Sam Zabel, is a fantasy merchant: selling superhero stories to Eternal, a big publisher. His heroine, Lady Night, is torn right from the Freudian guidebook: seemingly tough and smart, but basically an empty sexual plaything. "You can hurt me, torture me," she explains to her creator in a dream, "f--- me with your words." Sam is unhappy and unproductive. He spends days staring at the screen, and hours downloading high-resolution paintings such as John William Godward's A Quiet Pet: utopias within which his mind finds asylum. In short: more fantasy, this time of "a world of perfect grace and languor". When he returns from his reveries, the deadlines remain. 
Sam is saved from ennui, not by some neat reclamation of facts, but by a more articulate, ambivalent fantasy. He finds himself inside the pages of an old New Zealand comic, The King of Mars, feted as "the cartoonist god king" by a horny green harem from Venus. Sam refuses their ministrations – preferring to fantasise about them – and escapes to real life. He soon enters more stories, joined by 'zine maker Alice, and Japanese character Miki Roketto. Each comic, he learns, was written by the titular pen: a plot device for Scheherazade stories within stories, but also a neat symbol of creative imagination. 
What follows is an intelligent, moving and quietly funny study in fancy: from orgiastic monks and nuns in a 13th-century illuminated manuscript, to Rupert Bear-ish talking animals in postcards sent by a German soldier in World War II. Horrocks pokes gentle fun at superhero tropes, while the most unsettling and unsparing chapter is on Miki, whose origins in hentai pornography reveal the nasty side of made-to-order wish fulfilment.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

My Pop is a Pirate: out now

The Australian edition of My Pop is a Pirate is officially out now. 

Following on from My Nanna is a Ninja, which recently had its second reprinting, it follows the adventures of several proud kids and their fun grandfathers--one of whom has a golden leg and an eyepatch. Argghhh!

You can buy it at all good bookshops, or online. Meanwhile, a few early reviews:
"Highly recommended. This funny picture book showcases the loving relationship of a granddaughter and her pirate pop as well as presenting pops enjoying their lives, hobbies, vehicles, activities and food choices. [...] Damon Young's alliterative rhymes need to be read aloud to the young audience, his rhythmic style and funny scenarios celebrate the exciting lives of grandpas and pops. Peter Carnavas' colourful and funny illustrations add to the excitement of this rollicking picture book." - Readplus 
"Following on from the fun and deservedly very successful My Nanna is a Ninja comes this companion volume which is just as playful and energetic. The poetry is sheer joy and the rhythm flawless, but for me the thing to celebrate is that the stereotypical granddad, with his tartan slippers and doddery, wise ways, is nowhere to be seen. The pops in this book still have a lot of life left in them and they are embracing it with gusto.
So get your dose of pirates and alliteration with this rambunctious picture book for all ages, shapes and sizes." - Readings 
"The rhyming text is word perfect and the accompanying illustrations will have kids and adults rolling with laughter. [...] This is a great book to read aloud, with opportunity aplenty for sound effects and voices. Keep an eye out for the cameo appearance by Ninja Nanna and her crazy cat too!"- Kids Book Review
"Written and illustrated by the same team that did My Nanna is a Ninja; this is a companion volume with grandfathers as the focus. It has the same sense of inclusiveness, showing grandfathers or pops, as they are called, of different types. It has the same light-hearted sense of fun as it looks at how people are different. The cover is colourful and eye catching and the illustrations are clever and fun. I particularly like the pop in green gloves chopping wood but there were plenty of other fun illustrations that perfectly match the playful rhyming text." - Read and Write With Dale

Monday, February 23, 2015

The benefit of the doubt

Manus Island detention centre, Papua New Guinea
Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently suggested that, for too long, Australians have given asylum seekers, welfare recipients and criminals 'the benefit of the doubt'. 

My latest Canberra Times column is a reply, focusing on refugees. A sample:
[N]ot even children have been given the benefit of the doubt. The Human Rights Commission recently reported ongoing abuse in detention centres, alongside self-harm and mental illness. "Every day that they are in detention," said one charity worker employed on Nauru, "they face the risk of being sexually assaulted, physically assaulted, verbally assaulted. Every day." Even if their parents were economic opportunists – and there is no evidence of this whatsoever – these children would still have committed no crimes in coming to Australia. If anyone deserved the benefit of the doubt, it would be these kids. And yet the Prime Minister feels "no guilt whatsoever" at their imprisonment. 
In this light, the Prime Minister's portrait of Australia is misleading. He suggests a kind nation, wary of being too cruel in situations of uncertainty; a nation quick to offer help and slow to make charges of criminality or ethical perversion. But Australia, for all the countless everyday kindnesses of its citizens, treats asylum seekers with contemptuous brutality. There is a bipartisan spirit of political opportunism that has deemed these foreigners 'guilty' well before the boats arrive. Benefit of the doubt? We don't even give them the benefit of international law. 
Perhaps we are being played as mugs. But not by refugees. And we're not the ones who suffer most from this game.
(Photo: "Manus Island regional processing facility 2012" by flickr: DIAC images)

Monday, February 16, 2015

On spanking

My recent Canberra Times column was on spanking kids: 'Smacking children as punishment asks for a certain brutality'. A sample:
Even if spanking were a foolproof method of producing virtuous progeny - and it most certainly is not - this would not mean parents ought to do it. The corporal punishment argument too easily slips into neat instrumentalism: if it works, do it. Yet the efficacy of something does not make it right. A deed can be useful without being good. 
This is partly because the measure of something working well depends on what it's working for. In other words, ethics involves debate, not only about the means, but also about the ends. The goal of corporal punishment is often cowed obedience, and this is a trait I do not value highly. It has little worth in our family or, in my limited experience, in the workplace or public sphere. Respect for authoritative conduct is another thing altogether, and requires more than demonstrations of brute force. 
But instrumental justifications of spanking are also lacking because they ignore questions of character. To be frank: I don't want to be the kind of man who hurts a smaller, weaker person. I don't expect to be our children's friend: I am their custodian. I do have to advise, second-guess and discipline them, often unpleasantly. But deliberately striking them, whether coolly or in a rage, takes advantage of their weakness. Even if done for their own good - and, again, this is problematic - it asks for a brutality I choose not to embody. Controlled violence in self-defence against a threatening peer? Sure. Violence against a 25-kilogram grade one? No. I'll find my "dignity" elsewhere.
(Illustration: Giorgio Conrad)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Exercise: reflection, creativity, ethics (Vox)

I was interviewed about How to Think About Exercise for popular US news site Vox. You can read about the book, and my discussion with journalist Brandon Ambrosino, here: 'Exercise can make you more thoughtful, creative, ethical'. A sample, where I talk about my audience:
First, you have people who feel completely alienated from the fitness industry. They see themselves as mind people: bookish, curious, artistic. They see sport as something colonized by meatheads. This happens really early on, for a number of people, who are turned off to exercise early because of gym class in school. It was like physical, psychological torture. They hated it and never went back. So I'm saying to them, look, you are not exiled from the commonwealth of bodies. We are all bodies. There is no reason you can't revel in bodily striving just because you're bookish. 
Second, there are people who have joined gyms because they were trying to lose weight, or because they were worried about their hearts. So they join a gym, go for six weeks, then stop. They treat their bodies like a thing you tune up. The gym is seen as a body shop: you go and get things tuned up, and once things are better, you leave. What I'm suggesting is that these people focus on the intellectual and emotional awards of exercise, the way it enhances the imagination. These rewards would keep people motivated over their whole lives. 
Then you have the jocks, the people who are fantastic at sports in school, and they're fast, and they're rewarded for being swole [someone who is very, very muscular]. But no one ever takes them seriously for their minds. They're not rewarded for their interests in literature, or art, or avant garde music. The book is saying to these people: you can value yourself as more than a body. There are rewards you can get out of exercising that go beyond flexing in the mirror — not that I've got anything against that!
(Photo: Justin Maalihan)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How to philosophise with a hammerfist (Psychology Today)

My New Philosopher essay, 'Plato Said Knock You Out' (see below), is now available on Psychology Today. You you can read it here. A sample:
The point is not that every brute is an honorary classicist or that a black belt or golden gloves victory must make us righteous. The point is that Plato’s ancient precedent might rightfully occasion a little surprise. Physical violence and intellectual ambition seem radically at odds. Yet they cannot only coexist but also complement one another. To paraphrase Nietzsche, perhaps we might gainfully learn to philosophize with a hammerfist.
(Image: Fingalo)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Two sides to every story?

I've a column with the Canberra Times on the common axiom: 'There are two sides to every story'.

The article has been titled to focus on climate change, but my point is broader: there are often two sides, but quality matters. What can seem like a radical argument between opposing sides is actually an exercise in consolation--an opportunity to avoid the (exhausting) nuance of genuine debate. A sample:
When the media promote "two sides", and one side is unqualified or uninformed, they are encouraging...prejudices. While giving the impression of radical controversy, they are in fact keeping the conversation safe, without the constant and sometimes exhausting to-and-fro that marks genuine intellectual inquiry. Sometimes this show is for entertainment, such as a panel of celebrities offering quips. Sometimes it is simple ideological promotion, for profit and political dominance, such as businessmen doing what's good for business (in the short term at least). Either way, what looks like balance is in fact an appeal to its contrary: the comfortable bent that resists correction. 
The point is not that we desperately need censorship; that non-compliant ideas or language must be criminalised. The point is not that expertise guarantees certainty - quite the contrary, as professional scholars are often more aware of complicating nuance. The point is that, while there are indeed many takes on every story, some are not worth listening to, even for giggles. And if we find ourselves saying "well, there are two sides" in an argument, it might be time to stop talking and do our homework in silence. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Plato said knock you out (New Philosopher)

I've an essay in the most recent New Philosopher magazine: 'Plato said knock you out'. I'm discussing the ethical benefits of martial arts practice, which complement a philosophical life.

(For more on this, see Philosophy and the Martial Arts, which I edited with graham Priest.)

The New Philosopher essay isn't online (yet), but here's a sample:
The father of Western philosophy was a fighter. This is not a metaphor. Yes, Plato battled figuratively against Greek relativism and romanticism, symbolized by the Sophists and poets. But the great Athenian scholar also fought literally. The historian Diogenes Laërtius tells us that Platon, meaning ‘broad shouldered’, was the philosopher’s wrestling nickname. As a prominent aristocrat, Plato was known for his pedigree and youthful poetry, but also for his physique: the muscles of a gifted grappler, who reportedly competed at the Isthmian Games.  
And for all his wariness of the body and its wayward desires, Plato also recommended wrestling for the youth. In his dialogue Laws, he spruiked the benefits of stand-up grappling. This had a straightforward military use, developing “strength and health” for the battlefield. But it also cultivated character if “practiced with a gallant spirit.” The overall impression is that physical virtues encourage psychological excellence: perseverance, courage, and perhaps a greater sense of autonomy. 
Plato also believed that the martial arts were training in what might be called ethical competition. He pointed out that athlete Iccus of Tarentum put sport before sex. “Such was his passion for victory, his pride in his calling, the combined fortitude and self-command of his character, that,” wrote Plato, “he never once came near a woman, or a boy either, all the time he was in training.” This outlook, argued Plato, might easily move from the wrestling school to public life. You think winning a grappling match is a buzz? Think of victory over your own lust and delusion. “If they achieve it,” says the Athenian, “we shall tell them, their life will be bliss; if they fail, the very reverse.”  
So at the very beginnings of Western philosophy we have martial arts: not simply as a hobby, but as a moral and political policy. Nietzsche certainly echoed this combative credo, but most reflection is seen as a genteel business. Was Plato…unphilosophical?