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Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon has no moral center. The main character, the lone police officer of a small, colonial Senegalese town, is craven, prone to childish pranks, from salting someone’s tea to weakening the floorboards of an outhouse so that the unlucky occupant falls through. He endures humiliations with a wan smile, and when he’s finally had his fill, he metes out capricious punishment, killing the guilty and innocent alike. He draws others into his depravity, making his superior officer a patsy and inducing a schoolteacher to tell her class that his chalk-written confession on the blackboard is Le Marseillaise. Characters twice proclaim—once during an eclipse and again during a sandstorm—the arrival of Judgment Day, but no such judgment comes. Instead, life continues unabated in the town, the painted walls of houses both sun-baked and blinding.  Tavernier’s camerawork itself resists implying a moral center. He avoids, as he describes, “the principle of symmetry, with the hero in the center.” Instead, he creates, with his steadicam shots, “an image that [has] no center, that [keeps] shifting… It’s the physical equivalent of earth that isn’t solid.”

This is the creation of colonialism, Tavernier suggests—this lawless land. “The atmosphere of violence, horror, hypocrisy doesn’t leave you anything to hold on to,” he says. “But it’s not exactly a desperate vision of the world. Nor is it the opposite. You simply don’t know.”

*

I was raised Vietnamese Buddhist, which carries syncretic traces of Confucian ancestor worship. My parents themselves were light Buddhists, which meant that I went to temple only on major holidays:  New Year’s, smoky with sulfurous firecrackers and jangled with Dragon Dances; the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, with paper lanterns and me trading my salty yolked slice of mooncake to my father for his yolk-free one; and the Veneration of the Ancestors, for which one pinned a red rose to his lapel if his parents were alive and a white one if the parents had passed on. At temple, black-and-white portraits of the deceased were lined up on either side of the altar; each time I attended, I looked for my grandparents there. At the center of the altar was a large gilt Buddha, seated in the heroic position, hands in the ‘calling earth to witness’ mudra. The Buddha had radiant, neon halo. Buddhism doesn’t have strict tenets, such as the Ten Commandments, but instead suggests the Eightfold Path. I would have learned these paths, but the service was conducted in Vietnamese, which I understood only fleetingly, and I mouthed my way through sutras transliterated from Sanskrit into monosyllabic Vietnamese and read to the rhythm of a tapped woodblock. At the gong, I knew to bow, though I never figured out which gongs meant bow once and which meant three times.

Thus, my moral education consisted primarily of ‘Goofus and Gallant’ cartoons in Highlights for Children, read once every six months while waiting in the dentist’s office. I like to think I didn’t turn out too badly.

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I first saw Laurence Olivier’s ‘oysters and snails’ speech to Tony Curtis, not in Spartacus itself, but rather in The Celluloid Closet. In that scene, Olivier argues to his slave that sexuality is a matter of taste, rather than of appetite, and being a matter of taste, is not a moral consideration. “It could be argued so, Master” says Curtis. The Celluloid Closet was part of a queer studies class I took as a junior in college, at which time my own preferences had already ossified. ‘Skinny Jewish intellectuals’ was my taste, rather than a moral judgment on chubby Gentile fools.

***

Years later, I was in New Orleans with my skinny Jewish intellectual, for a conference. He had never eaten raw oysters before, his father having instilled in him the fear of Vibrio vulnificus, rather than Leviticus. We sat at open-air bar at Felix’s, and, around us, was the sultry autumn air, the sound of granular ice, and quick-fingered men with shucking knives and chain mail gloves.  “OK,” he said, “I’ll try one,” and several dozens later, the area was around us a denuded shoal, a mother-of-pearl graveyard.  “Oh, I’ve missed out on so much,” he bemoaned. “I lived in Boston and never had any oysters.”

***

Censors suggested replacing ‘oysters’ and ‘snails’ with ‘artichokes’ and ‘truffles,’ but even after Kubrick reshot the scene, they cut it, leaving audiences, presumably, to wonder why Curtis’ slave has a sudden attack of drapetomania. And while could be argued that the scene dealt with sexuality in a progressive way, for 1960, it might be that the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, conceived of the scene much differently.  According to Howard Fast, the author of the novel, the more abstract decadences of starvation or slavery were inconceivable to Hollywood types.  But sexuality—this was a decadence that Hollywood could understand.  Most people in Hollywood either knew someone who indulged in it, Fast says, or indulged in it themselves.

***

Matthew and I know oysters. We know the different types: the briny ones from Maine, the mineral tang of those from Prince Edward Island, the creamy flesh of Puget Sound breeds. We don’t slather them in cocktail sauce, but opt instead for a shallot-champagne mignonette or, if that’s not available, a squeeze of lemon and a dab of horseradish. Escargot is fussy: handling the little forks, and maneuvering the shells out of that specialized divoted pan. No, when we feel decadent, it’s much easier to slide an oyster whole into your mouth, liquid and all, even if ‘decadence’ is relative, and, of course, a matter of taste.

***

I learned recently that the ‘oysters and snails’ scene is a reconstruction—the audio long since lost. Tony Curtis, almost 30 years later, re-recorded his lines, and Anthony Hopkins was brought in to dub Olivier’s. Kubrick supervised via his fax machine from England. But even in its cobbled-together state, it still has a delicious charge to it: filmed from behind a gauzy curtain, the two men half-naked and oiling each other up.  “It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?” Olivier says, before concluding: “My taste includes both snails and oysters.”

Early in Black Narcissus, the English agent working for the Indian General, Mr. Dean, sends a letter to the nuns, describing Mopu, the palace high in the Himalayas where they are to establish their outpost, and how to reach it.  “It’s not a comfortable spot,” he writes, “and it’s at the Back of Beyond. First you have to get to Darjeeling and then I have to find you ponies and porters to take you into the hills.  Mopu is nearly 8,000 feet up.  The peaks on the range opposite are nearly as high as Everest.  The people call the highest peak Nyanga-Devi; it means, ‘The Bear Goddess.’…  Mopu Palace stands in the wind on a shelf in the mountain.  It was built by the General’s father to keep his women there.  It’s called a palace, but there may be a slight difference between your idea of a palace and the general’s.  Anyhow, there it is…  The wind up at the palace blows 7 days a week, so if you must come, bring some warm things with you.   [The caretaker] lives there alone, with the ghosts of bygone days.”

To get to Darjeeling, he could have added, you can take the narrow-gauge ‘toy train.’  The train winds up 88 km from Siliguri for an eight-hour journey.  It’s pulled by an honest-to-goodness steam engine, with someone to shovel the black chunks of coal into a fire and everything. The whistle can blow out your eardrums. If you have your window open, each time the engine belches out a thick burst of steam, tiny pebbles of soot will buffet your face.  As you ascend higher and higher, the green of the tea plantations take over the hillside, and after you cross bridges and duck under tunnels so tight that they could be a tube, the tea plants await you on the other side.  Halfway up, you pass through a cloud barrier, and, perhaps for the first time in India, you feel cold. At noon, no less!  The clouds become a mist, a veil obscuring the tops of trees and darkening the sky.  Or you can take a taxi for a 3½ hour ride along treacherous roads edged with concrete barriers to serve as a bump before you tumble to your doom.

To get to New Jalpaiguri, he might have pointed out, you fly into Bagdogra Airport, which is about 14 km from Siliguri.  Inside the terminal at Bagdogra, which at one time was an Indian Air Force base, all the television stations are tuned to the 24-hour global news cycle.  You can stay up-to-date on which Bollywood stars plan to marry, and see their pictures framed in clip-art hearts that bounce around to the theme of Chariots of Fire.  Cats lounge beneath the rows of formed-plastic seats.  They eat only meat products, though they’ll sniff anything you put on the ground.  On average, only four flights come in and out of Bagdogra’s three runways each day.  Take your pick:  Delhi, Kolkata, or Guwahati.  Where you go after that, Mr. Dean surely meant to say, is no concern of mine.

In his preface to the 1904 Tauchnitz edition of Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn explains that most of the stories he retells are taken from old Japanese manuscripts.  Some may have had Chinese origins, he suggests, but “the Japanese story-teller, in any case, has so re-coloured and reshaped his borrowing as to naturalise it.”

The unnamed author of the introduction writes:  “The Japanese… have possessed no national and universally recognized figures as Turgenieff or Tolstoy.  They need an interpreter.  It may be doubted whether any oriental race has ever had an interpreter gifted with more perfect insight and sympathy than Lafcadio Hearn has brought to the translation of Japan into terms of our occidental speech.”

Oh, we lucky, lucky Orientals.

*

In fourth grade, my teacher assigned the class to write a Halloween story.  I used my brother’s computer, a heat-spewing bludgeon with a black-and-cyan monitor.  After seven pages, however, the cursor froze at the edge of the screen, forcing me to go back and wrap up my story quicker.  The next day, I discovered that my classmates’ stories hardly went up to two pages.  My teacher flipped through my dot-matrixed creation warily.

For me, ghost stories were second nature.  I’d read the anthologies in my elementary school library — 100 Great Ghost Stories; Tales of the Supernatural — the page edges brown and warped from moist fingertips.  I’d come across, time and again, the same Victorian and Edwardian writers:  Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Walter de le Mare, Algernon Blackwood.  (Lafcadio Hearn must surely have been among them.)  I absorbed the stories, ingested the prose until the word ‘eldritch’ became part of my every day speech.

And yet, my story read like a collection of horror movie clichés:  full moon; someone impaled on a television antenna; tame gore; someone falling into an open grave.  I wonder now:  what had happened to those eminent Victorians?

*

The final segment of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, “In a Cup of Tea,” comes not from Hearn’s Kwaidan, but instead from Kottō: Being Japanese Curios.  In introducing his story, Hearn relies on classic Gothic imagery (“Have you ever attempted to mount some old tower stairway, spiring up through darkness, and in the heart of that darkness found yourself at the cobwebbed edge of nothing?”) before starting his narrative.  But the story itself is incomplete:  Hearn ends the fragment with an ellipsis.  “I am able to imagine several possible endings;” he writes, “but none of them would satisfy an Occidental imagination.  I prefer to let the reader attempt to decide for himself the probable consequence of swallowing a Soul.”  Kobayashi, for his part, ends his film by showing the story-writer himself, trapped in a cistern of water, as if to suggest that this is the answer:  one becomes what one consumes.

Did Lafcadio Hearn disappear into a cup of green tea for swallowing the Japanese soul?

Will I disappear into a pot of orange pekoe?

I am able to imagine several possible endings, but none of them would satisfy an Occidental imagination.

 

Act I, Scene V:  Elsinore.  A platform before the castle.

I used to insist that my house was haunted.  Once, while going into the basement, I swore I saw a blue figure walk from wall-to-wall, passing through them as if they were open doors.  It was a tall gentleman, wearing a top hat and Victorian clothing.  He seemed in an awful hurry.

Granted, at the time, I read as many books on supernatural phenomena as I could.  Well-worn books with black-and-white photographs of famous monsters:  Patterson’s shot of Bigfoot, Surgeon’s shot of Nessie.  And ghosts — so many pictures of ghosts!  Perhaps they were just double-exposures and fissures in the emulsion, but to me, they may have well have been rips in the mortal veil.  There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 

My brother played a trick on me.  He knew I had this fascination with ghosts, so he waited until I was headed down to the basement.  And there, at the bottom of the stairs, he had draped a bedsheet over himself, with holes cut out for eyes.  It was the cheapest, most generic ghost you could imagine, and yet, when I saw him, he yelled, “Boo!” and I screamed and ran back upstairs.  I later learned from my sister that our mother was mighty angry that he had ruined a perfectly good sheet.

Act I, Scene II:  A room of state in the castle.

The basement is now my father’s domain.  My mother banished him there ages ago, because no one could sleep once he started snoring.  We lived directly under the flight path of Stapleton Airport, so we should have been used to the noise, but even a floor away from the rest of the family, we heard his nighttime rumble crawling through the air vents, his restless spirit taking revenge on the rest of us.

But he prefers it down there.  He has his computer and his home theater.  He reads in his waterbed or blasts his Vietnamese pop music through the surround sound until my mother complains that it’s rattling the upstairs windows.  He also runs a one-man Vietnamese media service, burning compilation CDs for his friends or ripping movies borrowed from the library into his own library.  He makes custom covers for them, has them stacked nicely by the fireplace.  He even rips movies from my collection.

But, Dad, I tell him, I own them.  You don’t need another copy.

Just in case, he says.  Just in case.

In case of what? I wonder.  He’s in his mid-70s now, and I worry that the stairs bother him.  He gets cortisone shots in his back for a fused disc, my mother reports, but now his knees have been acting up.  But, you must know, your father lost a father; that father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound in filial obligation for some term to do obsequious sorrow.  I know the time will come — perhaps soon — when he can no longer live in the basement with the ghosts.

Hinkley High School didn’t offer AP Chemistry, so every morning, my friends Steve and Dan and I piled into Steve’s black vintage Thunderbird and trekked to Gateway High.  The front seats were stuck in ‘recline,’ and since Dan was taller than I, I took the backseat.  For the fifteen minute ride, we talked about day-to-day mundanities that seem important at the time, but fade as years accumulate:  Did you get this answer on the homework? Who are you taking to prom?  Which colleges have you heard from?

But the times all three of us were groggy or belligerently silent, Steve, a Peter Gabriel fan, put on music.  So and Shaking the Tree were our soundtracks.  Every so often, he’d slip in Passion:  Music for The Last Temptation of Christ, and I imagined that the drive down Chambers Road was a desert journey:  police sirens and ululations; car tires thrumming over potholes and African talking drums.

We knew of The Last Temptation of Christ because of the controversy, another shot in the endless culture war, whose targets would eventually encompass Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Kevin Smith’s Dogma, Chris Ofili’s “Black Madonna,” and David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in My Belly.”  But what makes something sacrilegious?  When an upscale dessert spot opened in Cherry Creek a few years ago, members of my parent’s temple were offended by a Buddha statue placed in front of the bathrooms.  They asked the management to move it.  Similarly, in Philadelphia, my sister huffed when we passed Buddhakhan, a yuppie-favored restaurant that features a gilded, oversized Buddha.

“We should,” my sister said, “open a theme restaurant with a big, honking Jesus overlooking everyone.”  Sample menu:  holy blood pudding, Disci-pulled pork, Communion wafer cookies.  The bar would serve nothing but rusty nails.  The name of the restaurant:  ‘The Last Supper,’ of course.

In the Last Supper scene of The Last Temptation of Christ, Willem Dafoe, as Christ, is calmly resigned to his fate.  This the same man (God?  Son of God?) who, earlier in the film, doubted his own divinity.  Did his doubt redouble his faith, or does faith exist only in the absence of doubt?

Dan, Steve and I also had English together, and our teacher presented a Bible-as-literature section.  In it, a classmate and I performed the first act of Arthur Miller’s The Creation of the World and Other Business.  We also gave presentations on other religions:  I wore my sister’s Norma Kamali dress and silvery bangles and drew, on the chalkboard behind me, extra arms to represent Shiva, dancing the world into destruction.

Dan, a Mormon, showed a videotape re-enacting the history of Mormonism.  Shot PBS-style, with a baritone narration over sepia-tinted images, the film droned on, a pioneer Western stripped of its outlaws, Indian raids, wild shoot-outs.  But when the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written were taken back to heaven, we erupted: What?  How’d that happen?  Did they get shipped Fed Ex?

Daniel, eyes flickering with visible agitation, remained silent, his faith unshakable.

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino ruminates on five “qualities or peculiarities of literature” that he holds dear (he died before he finishing the sixth memo).  The first quality, ‘lightness’ (leggerezza), describes not frivolity, but a nimbleness — with story, with language — that makes the gravity of the world easier to bear.  “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness,” Calvino writes, “I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.  I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational.  I mean that I have to… look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”  For Calvino, lightness and weight are two indivisible sides of the same coin; the presence of one does not necessarily indicate the absence of the other.

As an example of this, Calvino cites Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  The novel, he writes, is “a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living, not only in the situation of desperate and all-pervading opporession that has been the fate of [Kundera’s] hapless country, but in a human condition common to us all, however infinitely more fortunate we may be.”  According to Calvino, Kundera “shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight.”

The film maintains this delicate balance, veering from erotic comedy to serious relationship drama; from a gritty political realism to a satire of Soviet totalitarianism.  What’s the best way to equilibrate Juliette Binoche’s debilitating paranoia?  Stellan Skarsgård’s ass, of course!  I’m not sure what about the Czech Republic invites this mixture of light and weight (Calvino also mentions Kafka in his memo), but the film captures this mood visually:  early on, Prague appears vibrant and thriving; later, dilapidated and confining.

But perhaps this reflects Prague itself.  When Matthew and I traveled there in 2008, the film’s landscape ran in reverse.  On the bus ride from Ruzyne International Airport, Matthew noted, with a look like he’d just bitten into a licorice jellybean, the Soviet-style block housing zooming by.  But once we arrived in the Old City, Prague had become fantastic (in the classic definition of the word).  As one of Matthew’s colleagues described it, “Disneyland done right.”

Nothing, though, encapsulated the heady interplay of weight and lightness better than the changing of the guard at Prague Castle.  As with any quasi-military ceremony, it was performed with the formalized dignity of a Viennese waltz(except with bayonets and sabers).  The guards wore powder-blue uniforms, a tri-color herringbone cord looping around their shoulders and disappearing between the buttons of their jackets.  They marched gravely and lined up in formation, each soldier stretching out his left arm to ensure the proper distance between him and the next.  One held a flag embroidered with the words Pravda Vítĕzí, while, from windows overhead, a military band played — trombones, tuba, snare drum.

The solemnity was leavened, however, with the knowledge that those uniforms were not of strict military origin; instead, they were designed by Theodor Pistek, who won an Oscar for his costume work on Amadeus.  And though the soldiers paraded themselves with the utmost solemnity, I sensed that the soldiers knew that what they were really did was less a military necessity and more a show for the throngs of tourists crowding outside the gate, snapping pictures and reveling in the ceremony, and I sensed that beneath their po-faces, they put some extra lightness in their steps for our benefit.

I got a giddy little thrill when the opening credits for The Most Dangerous Game rolled:  “from the O. Henry Prize Winning Collection story by Richard Connell.”  Ohmigod, I thought, that could be me.  In the past several years, there’s been a small resurgence of movies adapted from short stories:  In the Bedroom from the Andre Dubus’ “Killings”; Jindabyne from Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home”; The Illusionist from Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist.”  When Zoetrope: All-Story accepts a story, the contract asks for both first serial rights and a one-year film option (previously, the right of first negotiation to acquire film rights).  Why can’t my story (or two! three!) be adapted into a film?  I’d even be willing to write sequels for as long as the franchise is profitable.

Some writers of literary fiction disdain cinematic aspirations.  Why would I want to sully my artistic output with crass commercialism? they scoff.  But I wonder if having a film made of your work is a dream which literary writers must harbor secretly, like an urge to kick pigeons.  No one wants to admit to selling-out; no one wants to be known as the pigeon abuser.

Herein lies the other dream that writers hold deep in their hearts — less of a dream, really, and more of a dagger:  I’m going to be forgotten.  Richard Connell, for example, received three O. Henry awards in his lifetime, but the rest his work has mostly faded from memory.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the film of The Most Dangerous Game, I might not have known of him at all.

Literary fame touches so few, remembers so few.  When I look at the table of contents of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, I wonder how many of my fellow recipients will continue to work, to be lauded.  All of them, I hope.  But Count Zaroff is a ruthless hunter, and only a lucky few escape the island; the rest end up as preserved heads in his trophy room.  The way I see it, Ha Jin, Nadine Gordimer, Paul Theroux and Junot Diaz are already on the speedboat.

It might be that I place too much stock in the idea of writing ‘for posterity.’  It also might be that the New Yorker’s list of 20 Writers Under 40 put me in the doldrums when they misspelled my name as ‘Joshua Ferris.’  But I keep going anyhow — once you’ve accepted the invitation to be the most dangerous game, you have no choice but to continue, avoiding Malay man catchers and Burmese tiger pits as necessary.

Just in case, though, I offer this memo to Hollywood executives, listing acceptable changes if you’d like to adapt my story for the screen:

· instead of regular middle school, school for ninjas.

· Vietnamese Communists to be replaced with Chinese Communists.

· add adolescent love interest and crunk dancing sequence.

· traumatic flashbacks involving carpet bombing will be shot in slow-motion.

· fewer eviscerations; more beheadings.

· post-production conversion to 3-D.

· all Asian roles can be played by white actors.

· in the end, it’s all a dream anyway.

Reading Lord of the Flies is a high school rite of passage, one of those time-honored traumas which includes:  first shower in the locker room, first kiss, first erection in public (though usually not concurrent).  I, only somewhat interested in the novel, read anticipating only the inevitable test.  What’s the symbolism of the downed airman?  Pig head on a stick:  as yummy as it sounds?  Do you identify with organizer Ralph or hunter Jack?

The themes of savagery and tribalism escaped me, but I didn’t have to look far into my own history for proof of their existence.  From sixth to eighth grade, I had a cabal:  John W., a Chinese-American with whom I competed academically; Jason B., biracial and hyperactive with a head of curly hair; and Bill H., whom I may have had a crush on.  We lunched in the North Middle School cafeteria and laughed the loud, raucous laughter that hides the insecurities and fears of adolescence.  We weren’t close enough to hang out outside of school, but close enough to associate with one another, to taunt more unfortunate middle-schoolers, close enough to call each friend.

That tribe was disrupted by high school:  John went on to Central, while the rest of us continued to Hinkley.  I could have formed new alliances and met new friends, but I tried to cling to the old ways.  We remaining three were still friendly, but it wasn’t the same.  If we were stranded on a desert island, I’d certainly receive a share of roasted pig but probably wouldn’t be the first one served.

The irrevocable schism came when Josh D. transferred to Hinkley from California with surfer charm and aw-shucks tan.  Bill and he bonded, an easy camaraderie that made me nostalgic for a friendship that had never existed.  They shared jokes to which I wasn’t privy.  They were hunters, while I was still tending to the little ones.

So I had one last joke for Bill.  One day, I was in the orchestra room while Bill was practicing his cello.  As he went to sit, I pulled the chair out from under him, and he fell backwards, clattering as he absorbed the brunt to protect his cello.  I stood for a split-second, trying to gauge if this was funny, and the orchestra teacher told me to leave.

“Run,” she said.

A few minutes later, she called me back.  Bill wasn’t in the room.  Bill could have gotten seriously hurt, she said.  What was I thinking? she asked.  To answer, I could have shown her the scene from Lord of the Flies in which the savage boys dance around a bonfire, frenzied, and end up spearing poor Simon to death.  It was The Beast, I could have said.

I avoided Bill for the rest of the year, and he transferred at the end of it.

By graduation, Josh and I had become friends.  I lent him my cherished copy of Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha senior year.  The next year, Saint Etienne released So Tough, which samples two lines from Lord of the Flies (“Maybe he means it’s some sort of ghost.” “Maybe that’s what the beast is.  A ghost.”)  But by that time, I was off at college, and my previous associations and tribes had dissipated, like smoke.  Josh never returned my CD.

About twenty minutes into watching Henry V, Matthew pulled out a Wordsworth Classics edition of the play and tried to follow along.  I didn’t even know we had copy in the house.  He flipped the pages of the thin paperback; there was still residue on the cover where the price sticker had once been.

“Hey,” he said.  “They’ve taken stuff out.”

Yes, I told him.  And not only that, but they added stuff in as well.  During the death of Falstaff, we skimmed the pages to no avail.  Falstaff isn’t even in the cast of characters.  What?  Messing with The Bard?  Who in his right mind would do that?  Laurence Olivier, according to Bruce Eder, trimmed approximately 1500 lines from the source material.  Entire scenes have fallen away; in their place, a mounted knight duel, a flurry of arrows, a bravura tracking shot of horses going from a trot to a full gallop.

Honestly, though, Shakespeare’s histories and I — we don’t get along too well.  Comedies, yes; tragedies, yes; but I’ve never found the histories that compelling.  What? I hear people saying.  And you teach English literature? Indeed, but I never claimed to teach all of English literature.  The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sixty-plus lines recounting Henry’s lineage might be incredibly informative, but it’s also incredibly dull.

The genealogy craze has exploded in the past few years — two television shows in the last year alone — but I find it less than compelling.  Being a recent immigrant to the United States (1975), the wealth of information available to others who have been here longer — church records, immigration papers, employment lists — isn’t useful.  Friends of mine have made pilgrimages to small rural towns to check parish records, to thumb through yellowing, water-stained pages, to glance through stocks of microfiche to track down the various branches of their family tree.

And, in any case, listening to someone else recount his ancestry is like watching a vacation slide show:  they get to relive their history, I get to live my own boredom.  It’s not that I’m not curious about my roots, but that I’m willing to accept the version of history that my parents have passed down to me:  I’m descended from royalty.  It’s every eight year-old girl’s dream, and it’s something I accept as a matter of faith.

Despite my misgivings, I typed my name into an family tree website but got no further than my parents’ names.  I realized that I didn’t know my grandparents (except for my maternal grandmother), beyond seeing their pictures on the altar in our living room and sporadically burning incense for them.  I didn’t know their ‘real names’ — I only knew them by the functional Vietnamese words for grandmother and grandfather:  ông nội and bà nội (ông ngoại and bà ngoại for the maternal grandparents).  They were a continent away and decades removed.  I could piece together snapshots of them from family stories — my paternal grandmother’s fiery temper, for example — and that makes them real enough to me.

Would it be so terrible to discover, further and further back, that I’m descended from a stablehand or a rice farmer or a drunken French colonialist?  Not at all.  But it doesn’t help illuminate my own person, even if, as Henry V proposes, it entitles me to a nice piece of property across the sea.

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