Strange Halves

I started thinking about this essay after my story “Redder” was published, to briefly talk about a specific technique of storytelling: stories whose structure is intentionally discontinuous but nondual, built out of seeming halves. As always, this essay is brought to you with the support of my patrons! Some personal news in the meantime: having written what will hopefully be my first novel, I am now represented by Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Satpralat (2004) is called Tropical Malady in English, not Strange Creature, which would be a more literal translation of สัตว์ประหลาด. Most reviews speak of the film as having two halves. In fact, it’s difficult not to speak of it as having two halves—there is an explicit transition between the two, and while there is (some) continuity of character, there is a massive shift in style, register, and tone. This may not seem all that uncommon a device: for example, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020) does something very similar, where Aubrey Plaza’s character goes from being the manipulator in the first half to the manipulated in the second. But Black Bear flattens itself with its framing device that repeatedly shows (yet another?) Aubrey Plaza character drafting multiple versions of a screenplay, of which the two halves—the bear in the road and the bear near the boathouse—are only drafts in different genres. So Black Bear is less what I’m talking about and more like an American remake of Sion Sono’s Antiporno (2016), where the first half is revealed in the second half to be a film, with the power dynamics of the film-within-the-film being inverted in the story of the production of that film-within-the-film. But both Black Bear and Antiporno have continuity between their halves: they are not discontinuous halves but unfoldings.

In Satpralat, the first half is a romance between two men set in a world seems like ours. The second half is a world apart, a fantastical sequence of transformation and apparition, where one of the lovers is sometimes a tiger, but not the generic cinematic weretiger that one might be forced to imagine, with the howls and chains and writhing and cracking bones and predictable guilts; no, this is not that. Between these worlds, these halves, there is a pause: a black screen that slowly fades into a tiger who announces that we are embarking on a new path.

Still from Satpralat (2004): the threshold between its halves.

The halves read each other, but we encounter them, necessarily, in sequence. So it is only in the second half that we understand that we’re meant to read both what we’re seeing now and reread what we saw before. An hour later, when we get to the tiger facing the man in the jungle, we understand their dynamic of desire and pursuit. The first half reads the second as much as the other way around. This isn’t metafiction: this is a mirror-fiction that doesn’t tell you which side of the mirror you’re on.

Still from Satpralat (2004): the climactic faceoff.

In Jess Barton’s strangely doubled poem “Lord, Be A Femme” (2017), published on Tumblr, read by the author here, and included in the Nameless Woman anthology, available here for free, the transition is similarly tight and explicit—“My asshole becomes a glorious portal through time and space fucked back to Mayan brothels in Guatemalan jungles.” Then it does, and we are in another world peopled by men who are jaguars, not tigers. But at the same time (and in another time) it’s the same people and the same story, too. This is what’s important about these strange halves: despite being clearly distinct, they are not dyadic but nondual. Not separate stories cut together, not unfoldings of a fiction into a metafiction, but each half precisely a reading of the other. A prediction, or a prophesy—a vision. The cloud of connotations shifts too much with each of those words. Prediction is too sfnal, a model or forecast; prophesy is too fantastical, a destiny, a fate, a doom. Vision, at least, feels appropriately mystical, or at least mysterious: a weird, a word, a word in your ear, whispered by the voices of the dead.

In April 2019, Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested for a short story that he had posted on Facebook. The story was in Sinhala, called “අර්ධ”: ardha, which means half. The strange arrest was instigated by a faction of Buddhist monks who I would have called hardliners if there existed a softer line worth speaking of; as it is, they are merely representative. Their problem with the story was, in a word, blasphemy.

It would be four months before Sathkumara was even given bail. The case is still ongoing, and the possibility of prison time is still on the table. Meanwhile, the story, originally written in Sinhala, was eventually translated into English and published by the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. I did my own translation, too, though I didn’t publish it at the time: well, there it is, for what it’s worth. It seemed redundant then, and perhaps it is even now, because such cases are not truly about the words or about art or its place in our lives.

What precisely about Sathkumara’s story was so objectionable as to land its author in prison is itself somewhat entangled. One half of that tangle is simply that it depicts monks in an unflatteringly realistic way, such as by acknowledging the rampant child abuse that characterizes Buddhist temples or by having a monk named Gnanasara show up as a character accusing social workers of helping “Tiger families,” or even just by having the main character be an ex-monk who sees monkhood as pointless and miserable and is glad to be rid of it. In other words, the story depicts Sri Lankan Buddhism as it is. Its genre is unbearable realism.

Then there is the other half, perhaps the major part of the offense that was taken: the blasphemy. This is the brief short-story-within-the-short-story where Siddhartha is cuckolded by his charioteer. This fiction-within is too small, you might say, to constitute a half. But considering its outsize impact, its wildly disproportionate consequence, it would be more correct to say that this paragraph is the bigger half of the story. As the fiction-within gives way to the metafiction, the characters acknowledge that the joke is unspeakable: the narrator urges its author to burn the story-within. Perhaps if he had, the author’s author would not have gone to prison. But what then would have been lost, and whose loss would it have been?

In May 2020, Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested for a book of poems, “நவரசம்,” Navarasam, written in Tamil. He is still in prison. The book is now online but not yet in translation. The accusation this time is not blasphemy, but promoting terrorism; where Sathkumara was detained under “hate speech” legislation, Jazeem is being detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. As that article notes:

Ahnaf’s book of poetry was also cleared by an eminent scholar of the Tamil language and retired Professor of Tamil at the University of Peradeniya, M.A. Nuhman, who famously authored “The Murder of Buddha,” a poem about the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981. Professor Nuhman said he had read Jazeem’s tiny anthology of 45 poems after hearing of the poet’s prolonged detention under the PTA and found nothing on extremism in the collection.

“On the contrary, there are several poems against extremism, violence, and war in this collection,” Professor Nuhman said in a statement on Jazeem’s arrest.

Professor Nuhman, a widely respected Tamil scholar, said Jazeem work mostly concerned religious morality, humanism, love and a peaceful life. “How can these sentiments be seen as promoting extremism,” he questioned, adding that the authorities who could not read or understand poetry in the Tamil language may have run away with that notion because there were a few pictures of people in arms depicted in the printed version of Jazeem’s anthology.

The discontinuity between prosecution and defense is so complete that these two halves of each case are not even debating the same thing. These cases are absolutely about the freedom of art (dead as it is on this island, are we not still haunted) but at the same time these cases are, clearly, not truly about art at all. What here has been lost, and whose loss is it? These cases aren’t even necessarily about words: Ahnaf was arrested and detained without investigators or magistrate being able to read the book, which they still are not. The prosecution happily wallows in illiteracy; it is the belated defense that must now read poetry, that must seek real translation, that must argue that words mean things and that the truth matters. The prosecuting state is happy to take the easy position that truth is reducible to power, and that art is at best a nuisance and at worst a kind of disease—hardly a pandemic, of course, merely the last remnant pockets of infection, something nearly eradicated.