Surgam and Spring – How They Literally Fit Together

“But what on earth is the Philolexian Society??”That’s a good question, and I hear it a lot. “Columbia’s undergraduate literary and debate society” is probably the best answer (“Victor Hugo’s Court of Miracles given a bath and a shave” is another).The debate sice of the society is most perspicuous: each week we advertise the resolution to be discussed (“Resolved: Everything good will kill you”; “Resolved: Ms. Frizzle is a better science teacher than Bill Nye”), and most of our weekly meetings are dedicated to speeches on the topic in question.

To get to the literary side, you have to dig a little deeper. Our flagship literary enterprise is Surgam, the journal for undergraduates’ literature and art we publish thrice each year, and when people ask me what forms the literary side of our literary society I usually point to the magazine. But Surgam is just a little bit harder to bring into the world than our weekly debates. And so every Thursday night for the past year I’ve got up in front of the Society to let them know that the deadline for submissions has been drawing closer and wouldn’t they send me something – anything – to read; every Tuesday we’ve put up our imperious flyers (“SUBMIT“, they read, in a bold Futura typeface); every weekend I’ve sent e-mails to friends and acquaintances whom I know have literary talent and aspirations.

The work paid off. This semester we had more than fifty individual submissions, a first for us. Accepted submissions range in form from autobiography to short story to verse, and in tone from reflective like Frank Redner’s balanced piece on family, alcohol, and life in the rural midwest to lyric such as Anna Ziering’s resonant, economical verse in
“Summer, Briefly” to whimsical, like Rowan Buchanan’s “Propinquity or Blue Cockatoo,” which sounds exactly like the kind of story it is.

And now the journal is printed, our birthing pangs are done with, and we’re all set to launch Saturday, 30 April 2011, at 4 p.m. in Lerner 568. I very much hope to see you there.

Gavin McGown
Editor-in-Chief, *Surgam*

Read below for an excerpt from “Market Hunting” by Aliza Goldberg, BC ’14. 

***

A porcelain bowl of fat, wiggling maggots is displayed on the curb and the vendor absentmindedly picks her nose.  A cage of indignant roosters is tied to the back of an abandoned motorcycle.  The birds screech at the discomfort, ignorant of the fact that soon they will be defeathered, butchered, and then plopped into boiling broth.  This immediacy of your meals unsettles you, realizing that you prefer the anonymity of hamburger patties and chicken cutlets.  Ducking under a blue tarp to evade the blinding sun, you discover another maze of stalls.

Withered frogs are displayed like sheets on a clothespin line; noodles lie in a dusty corner on the floor, twisted in bundles like hay.  Some vendors smile at you as you wander, but most stare blankly.  Customers push past one another, competing for the competing vendors.  Around another corner are plastic stickers and toys of animals, blonde dolls, and Ho Chi Minh.  Further down the street are boxes of fake paper money and buckets bursting with bright flowers you can’t name.  Each area of the market has a special purpose, from offering a meal to providing funeral décor.  The market is the order in your chaotic Vietnamese life.  This ancient system seems to work for the citizens, though you are stumped to figure out the economics, since compartmentalizing the market heightens competition while demand remains constant.  But you are not part of the system and regardless of what you say, you are not a citizen here and will never be.

Passing each middle-aged woman selling identical flowers side by side, you notice lacquered bowls and vases across the street.  You consider buying a lacquered item because of your newfound obsession with the haunting depth of the shiny, metallic technique but decide to wait until you are about to leave the country to stock up on appreciations.  The Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum dedicates an exhibit to lacquer art; when you wander down the hall for the first of many visits, the dark red and inky black tones make you quiver in the air-conditioned French villa, incredulous at the meticulous detail and the complex process necessary for lacquer technique.  A cobalt vase gilded in gold perched on the market sidewalk curb glints in the sunlight and you look down at your toenails, newly painted with bright red glitter.

The market vendors are much less aggressive than the teenage vendors that wander the city streets with boxes awkwardly dangling from their shoulders, selling scarves, postcards, and cigarette lighters.  Market vendors shout at customers, customers shout at vendors, vendors shout at vendors, and customers shout at customers.  No one shouts at you because you would not understand and do not belong in this market with the buzzing flies and whimpering dogs, scraping spoons and screaming children.

You are a woman, so you are at the market.  Yet everyone sees through the lies.  You weave through crowds and haggle persistently but you will never be a woman casually walking through the market.  You will always be the girl whose knee length skirt is just a little too short, who slips in the trash that litters the curb, who takes pictures of anonymous houses because of a fascination with the foreign architecture, and who confuses the words “beef” and “father.”  One morning last month you tried to ask your host mother if it would rain that day, she nodded, and you brought an umbrella to school; later that day, she was surprised to see you home because you had told her you were going shopping.

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