At the moment I am writing this, there are exactly 120,000 comments on Whatever.
Quick! Be 120,001! Hurry!
At the moment I am writing this, there are exactly 120,000 comments on Whatever.
Quick! Be 120,001! Hurry!
And now, the second part of today’s “Big Idea” two-fer, and it’s somewhat special for me, because Kelsey Timmerman, the author, is a fellow citizen of Darke County, the small agricultural Ohio county in which I live. Yes, that’s right, Darke County now has two published authors! We’re all very proud. But while I write about other worlds from Darke County, Timmerman had to leave Darke County to visit the rest of the word in order to write his book. Why? Because his clothes were made in other places all over the word — and as you might guess with a title like Where am I Wearing?, Timmerman had a curiosity about where his threads were fabricated. But the original impetus for the journey was, perhaps, a little unusual, with an emphasis on the word “little.” Here’s Timmerman to tell you more.
Herve Villechaize, or more specifically Herve Villechaize’s face, gave me my big idea.
His devilish mug, which he lent to the character Tattoo on the 70s hit Fantasy Island, was emblazoned on my favorite T-shirt. His eyes sparkled with mischief. His smile was too wide, his comb-over too perfect. “COME WITH ME TO MY,” hung over his head and “TROPICAL PARADISE,” sat just beneath his dimpled chin. I was curious where Tattoo’s tropical paradise was. I looked at the tag; it read Made in Honduras.
What if I went to the countries where my clothes were made and met the people who made them? Where was I wearing?
As someone who has never needed much of an excuse to travel anywhere, this sounded like fun, an exercise in experimental travel that would take me around the world. It was the garment equivalent of tossing a dart over my shoulder at a map and going to wherever it landed.
Off I went.
An Idea is abandoned
In Honduras, I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with my Tattoo T-shirt. I explored the jungle on the Mosquito Coast with my brother, who later contracted malaria. For a very brief moment I shared a dugout canoe with a deadly fer-de-lance. (The snake stayed in the canoe; I jumped into the river.) I taught an island-village to play baseball. I went SCUBA diving. On my very last day in Honduras I tracked down the factory that made my shirt and came face-to-face with a worker named Amilcar. I had been telling myself that this was the reason I was in Honduras, but once I had the opportunity to ask Amilcar about his life, I couldn’t do it. Part of me wanted to know what his life was like, but the other part was quite content not knowing, maybe even a little scared about what I would learn.
I left Honduras knowing very little about my Tattoo T-shirt or the workers who made it, and abandoned the idea of meeting the people who made the rest of my clothes.
An idea becomes an obsession
Events changed me. I got engaged. I bought a home. I started to become a normal American-a consumer with a mortgage, a refrigerator, and a flat-screen television. I began to settle into my American Dream, and comfortably so, I might add. But then, a pile of my favorite clothes appeared once more. My Jingle These Christmas boxers were made in Bangladesh. My all-American blue jeans were made in Cambodia. My flip-flops were made in China, and, believe it or not, my favorite pair of shorts were made right here in the USA.
I couldn’t put on a T-shirt without thinking about Amilcar and the questions I failed to ask him. I became obsessed with where my stuff was made.
I started to read books about globalization and the history of the garment industry, but they missed something. More than the forces, processes, economics, and politics of globalization, I had to know about the producers who anchored the opposite end of the chain. The lives, personalities, hopes, and dreams of the people who make our clothes were lost among the statistics.
I decided to resume my quest to meet these people. To finance it, I did perhaps the most American thing I’ve ever done-I took out a second mortgage. You see, my big idea was really expensive.
Off I went…again.
An idea is resurrected
In Bangladesh, I went undercover as an underwear buyer and spent the day with a single mom who hoped she didn’t have to send another son to Saudi Arabia to work. In Cambodia, I toured a Levi’s factory, and befriended a small dorm room where four girls slept on a wooden bed and the other four slept on the concrete floor. In China, I was berated by an American corporation’s vice president, and visited the village of a husband and wife who hadn’t seen their son in three years.
Before you start thinking that my big idea led to nothing but depressing revelations, it wasn’t like that. I made a point of not focusing on just the challenges the workers faced. We went bowling, rode a rollercoaster, played Frisbee, and just hung out with family and friends. We spent more time laughing than we did talking seriously.
Together we bridged the gap between producer and consumer.
Writing an idea
In the particular case of my book Where am I Wearing?, living the idea was as difficult and as important as writing about it. Still, tackling weighty and controversial issues such as globalization, outsourcing, labor rights, and child labor was more than a little daunting at times. I think that when people hear about the book they often think I’ll be standing on my soapbox preaching at them for 272 pages. But I didn’t want to write a book like that.
So, like my travels, I focused on the workers. Each day I sat at my desk, flipped on my digital picture frame with photos of Arifa, Nari, Ai, Mr. Li, Zhu Chun, and all of the rest, and wrote their stories. In an effort to make sense of our world, our economy, and to answer the question at the heart of my book – “Where Am I Wearing?” – I took my perspective as a consumer and melded it with theirs as a producer. The result is a story that is every bit theirs as it is mine.
What started as a random excuse to travel inspired by a 70’s pop icon on my T-shirt, became so much more.
Perspective is a hard thing to come by, even for a writer, whose job description, if one thinks about it for a minute, is all about perspective. And so when Christopher Barzak was almost randomly offered a chance to change his perspective, he jumped at the chance — and had a series of experiences which have lead to his latest novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing. “Barzak’s perceptive writing evinces the fragile and overwhelming desire for meaning and love,” Publishers Weekly notes in its review, which suggests that Barzak indeed has gotten a new view of the world, and has succeeded in sharing it.
What was this change in perspective? Here’s Barzak to tell you all about it.
In 2004 I moved to Japan to take a job teaching English in a Japanese elementary and junior high school system. Friends from grad school had gone over several months before, and through e-mail had asked me, “Hey, what are you doing back in the States?”
I replied, “I just finished writing a novel. Other than that, not much.”
“Why don’t you come over here, then?” my friends asked.
I had always wanted to live in another culture, just to know what that would feel like, since I was a teenager. I grew up in a rural small town in Ohio, where the quality of sameness was so prevalent that my imagination became my strongest faculty; the means by which I could encounter difference. So when my friends invited me over, saying they could get me a job, after deliberating for a few days, I wrote back, “Okay, sure, why not?” After all those years of imagining a life for myself elsewhere, I figured I had better seize the chance to make that a reality.
Japan, however, had never been on my map of places I wanted to visit, let alone places I wanted to live. So I agreed with some reluctance. The fact that I had graduated with an MA in English/Creative Writing and was living in the Rustbelt City of Youngstown, Ohio where there were very few opportunities for a person with a graduate degree in English, though, aided me in making a decision to leave my home and live in a country to which I had no strong connection or desire to visit. Times were hard. Bush was president (I already speak of this in the past tense, probably unwisely). The tenor of America was harsh, unkind, divided by our own ideas of ourselves. Why not live elsewhere for a while, I figured?
So I arrived in Japan without much expectation, other than I was about to enter a strange land. What I discovered, though, on the other side, was a place where I was suddenly free of all the cultural conflicts of America. Japan certainly has its own problems, but I was now a free agent. Being a foreigner comes with many benefits. One of those benefits is a sort of freedom from participating in both one’s host culture as well as being free of the rules and regulations of one’s home culture. If you have never experienced this before, I highly recommend it.
Early on in what came to be my two-year stay in the Land of the Rising Sun, I began writing stories. At first I thought they were short stories. After the first two, though, I realized there were character overlaps, and by the time I wrote a third one, it was clear that the people I was writing about were all connected to one another, even though they themselves did not realize their own connections, the way they were influencing and affecting one another’s lives without knowing.
Soon I found myself halfway through the first draft of a novel in which I was trying to make sense of being a racial minority for the first time in my life, a foreigner in a country that had military bases full of my own country’s people living on them, how growing up with a foreign military in your own back yard must feel. I found myself writing a novel about Americans who have chosen to leave their country because of their great disappointment with it, a novel about Japanese characters who felt alienated in their own homeland for its own cultural limitations, a novel about how easy it is to feel alone in the world, whatever part of the world you may live in, for any number of reasons, but how our aloneness is the common thread that binds us together.
I found myself in Japanese art museums, staring at long folding screens, the panels of which Japanese artists have been painting with epic imagery for centuries, depicting movements in their cultural history, and wondering if a novel might not be made to emulate that visual structure. I found myself learning a new language, becoming friends with children for the first time in ages, learning how to care for young people, how to befriend someone even though we did not share a common language, how to be grateful for the amazing kindnesses perfect strangers gave to me throughout my time there, helping a foreigner in ways that I could not imagine many people in my own country, Land of Learn the Language!, performing so honorably and with such ease as the Japanese.
I found myself remembering what it is like to live in a true community. It had been a long time since I’d felt that. Because of the loss of an economic foundation in the Rustbelt, in places like Youngstown, Ohio, I’d grown up in a place where people did their best but were wary of each other, afraid that kindness would only lead to someone taking advantage of them-the curse of capitalism, to capitalize, to take advantage. Because I’d left a country behind that was so divided by our differences from one another, I found myself able to begin making a relationship with the world again, rather than trying to run away from it. I found myself smiling and happy when a Japanese person who spoke little English trying to anyway-famously saying, “Please! Enjoy!” Two words that indicate a welcoming, and a wish for a guest to make themselves at home. If you know no other words in another language, those are two of the loveliest to know.
That’s the Big Idea of my novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing. A novel is never just one big idea, though. A novel is a constellation of ideas. There are more ideas, big and small, in this book. Please! Enjoy! Please enjoy them all.