Oregon authors

Demanding to be seen in a faceless bureaucracy

Mohamed Asem's memoir "Stranger in the Pen" reflects on identity and belonging

Mohamed Asem is a man between countries and cultures, which puts him squarely at odds with bureaucratic systems that crave neat little scribbled-in circles. When everything is carefully defined, there are fewer choices. No gray area. Nothing to consider or worry about. So what happens when it isn’t?

Asem is a man of independent means with no permanent ties, free to explore the world when and how he chooses. Yet he learns abruptly, rudely, and quite painfully that “where” is not always a possibility. Not all doors are open to him. In his short memoir (131 pages), Stranger in the Pen, newly published by Portland’s Perfect Day Publishing, Asem recounts in his understated prose how he’s detained overnight at Gatwick Airport in London in July 2016, a few days after the Bastille Day terrorist attack, in which a semi-truck drove through crowds in Nice, France, killing 86 people.

Mohamed Asem for Perfect Day Publishing, June 2018. Photo by Jason Quigley.

Like a film lens moving in and out of a close-up, throughout the airport story Asem deftly weaves in memories and details about the rest of his life, one that defies categories and easy identification so that it stymies Border Control agents. Born in California and raised in Paris and Kuwait, he’s not truly at home anywhere.

His accent doesn’t fit no matter what language he speaks. He’s comfortable with family and friends in Kuwait, but his introverted ways (so “Western”) make him a tough fit in a culture that is so social, and his perpetual single status inhibits his ability to buy property so he can have privacy and write. On top of that, he’s light-skinned because his ancestors moved to Kuwait from other countries, so even in a Kuwaiti airport he’s often asked to get in a line for non-citizens. Where does the meta stop?

Continues…

A Road Dog barks his tale

Portland filmmaker Kelley Baker and his chocolate lab hit the road for some American adventure. Oh: and a book that spills the beans.

“Our story starts in the Garden of Eden,” Kelley Baker begins. “Not that one. The one in Lucas, Kansas.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden.

 “The wind blows ferociously across the Kansas prairie, because it’s … Kansas.

 “I’m standing next to a too-skinny woman dressed in black who reminds me of a meth addict. With teeth. Dinsmoor’s lying in front of us. He’s seen better days.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor is a mummy.”

Baker calls himself The Angry Filmmaker, and there is some truth to the assertion, although “renegade” might be a more accurate if less marketable word. Now, with the release of Road Dog, his comic and exasperated and slightly profane tale of traveling America’s highways and back routes, he could even make it The Renegade Raconteur.

Curling up with a good book.

A fixture on the Portland film scene for decades, Baker’s juggled a mainstream career – sound designer on six Gus Van Sant movies and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, writer/producer/director of several successful documentaries for TV – with a fiercely independent career of making ultra-low-budget features, often peddling them himself on long road trips to colleges, film festivals, and specialty video stores. Then there’s the one he’s still reeling in, the feature-length documentary on the novelist and radical activist Kay Boyle, a three-decade project that is tantalizingly close to completion but still a few thousand dollars short of the finish line. I wrote about his quest three and a half years ago in Angry and obsessed: the Baker/Boyle story.

That’s almost, though not quite, how long it’s been since we’d sat down to talk. Until recently, when he came out with Road Dog, and I figured it was time to catch up. Kelley’s one of those people you like to catch up with now and again, if you can figure out where he is and how long he’ll be there. Road Dog is a sort of working-man’s riff on Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck’s tale of traveling into the soul of America on an epic road trip with his dog. Baker’s book recounts his adventures over several years of long road trips in the company of a 120-pound chocolate lab named Moses, who may not lead him to the promised land but is a good and faithful companion and a co-conspirator in many stories.

The book is episodic, as rambling as the endless country roads Kelley and Moses travel, and very funny. Baker writes pretty much the way he talks, which is with a natural plainspoken rhythm that incorporates wry humor, sharp satiric jabs, fascinating side trips that eventually loop around to the point, and a streetwise moralism that does not suffer fools gladly but appreciates their contributions to the telling of a tale.

Baker

Road Dog covers several national tours that Baker and Moses undertook, usually twice a year, from North to South to East to West in a tripped-up minivan. It covers, usually, hundreds of miles a day, broken up by “incidents” with Texas and Idaho and Iowa state troopers and snooty film professors who’ve never made a film. It drops in on nights of drinking and swapping stories with lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center beside Hank Williams’ grave, and meetings with friendly bikers and pickup drivers and helpful long-haul truckers. It is dotted with Motel 6es and Walmart parking lots (“a series of campgrounds with stores attached that stretch across the United States”) and adventures with a giant Jesus in the Ozarks and an antiseptic Prayer Tower in Tulsa. It tells of being outed as a Yankee in a Memphis bar, and meeting kindred souls from Austin to the nation’s capital, and white-knuckle drives through blinding storms, and traveling with his daughter, Fiona, who adapts adroitly to life on the road. Through it all, Baker encounters an America shaped by and yet also somehow engaging deeply beyond the headlines of a divided nation. And Moses doggedly makes his mark at rest stops and tree stumps across the country, winning friends and stealing hearts along the way.

Road Dog even includes a glossary, which is largely an excuse for Baker to make epigrammatic pronouncements of a jaundiced and entertaining nature. (On the Winchester Mystery House: “This place is a tribute to one of the craziest people in America. But she was incredibly wealthy so she was just considered eccentric.” On PBS affiliates: “a loose network of television stations that have no problem overpaying for films by people like Ken Burns and yet wants most other filmmakers to give them their work for free. Especially if you’re local.”)

Oh, and about the Garden of Eden. S.P. Dinsmoor’s wife is there, too. Buried under several tons of concrete. You could look it up.