Monday, November 12, 2012

Zansonsha: What's in a Name?

I have been using the alias Zansonsha for quite some time now, but I have yet to really define it or explain why I’ve chosen this Japanese term to represent my identity and my work. As much as I am annoyed by essays which begin with definitions, it would seem necessary in this case. Zansonsha (残存者) loosely translates to “one who survives” or, depending on usage, “one who remains”.

Even as a child, I was interested in the meaning of life and death. The threat of death was a very real one for me. My earliest memories are of hospital rooms, where doctors would share grim prognoses with my worried parents. I was a mess of respiratory and autoimmune problems that would have been a fatal concoction; aside from excellent health care and a loving family, I have no idea how such a labyrinth of circumstances got me through those early years.

My earliest vivid memory of asthma is from what I believe was late elementary school. My brother and I were home alone while my mother was at work, and an attack struck. If you haven’t experienced asthma firsthand, the best way I can describe it is for you to imagine what a literal fish out of water must feel like, a dry kind of drowning, muscles straining to draw in what little air the bronchial tube will permit, like pinching the end of a straw and trying to suck air through it. Consciousness fades gradually, becoming a light-headed delirium followed by blackouts. Rescue medication is not guaranteed to work, forcing an occasional visit to the hospital. This particular attack would require one of those visits. Rather than let my brother call and disturb my mother at work, I insisted he not call, forcing myself to fight against my own body for several hours. When my mother finally got home, she was upset and asked why I did not call her. My response was: “I didn’t want to be a burden.”

Survivor is an interesting word. To most, it has an overwhelmingly positive connotation. It has a band, a reality show, and hundreds of support groups to give it meaning. The reason it’s so positive is apparent: our culture values human life to such a degree that we care more about the presence of it than the quality of it. We are a culture that discourages suicide, euthanasia and abortion. Life is a divine gift, and a survivor is someone who fights to protect the gift of life.

While this philosophy is sound enough, being alive is a collaborative effort, and this is especially true for survivors. Survivors have a heightened awareness of those who have contributed to our lives: the parents and teachers who were there to educate and nurture us, the friends who supported us, professionals who worked to save us, artists whose work gave our lives greater meaning. With such awareness, survivors may be overcome with a sense of guilt. Survival seems less like something that is earned and more like something that requires human charity and a particular alignment of the stars. The struggle of a survivor is not simply to live, but to feel deserving of salvation, to repay a living debt. It is the struggle to ease one’s burden on others.

Such a sense of responsibility can be overwhelming, and one’s ability to come to terms with the absurdity of death and find a way to contribute to society can make or break a man. Using a word like survivor would seem inadequate to capture this psychological sense of survival. The two closest words in the English language would be holdover or remainder, but there’s something mathematical and impersonal about such terms. It was clear to me that I would have to borrow from a foreign language.

While many cultures have their great existentialist writers, I was attracted to the maturity of Japanese storytelling from a young age. The shows, movies and video games I grew up with were created by artists who were children or young adults in the aftermath of World War II, forced to deal with the realities of death on a massive scale and the guilt of survival. Taking a page from reality and turning it to fiction, teenagers engage in war with experimental weapons, children watch as cultures are decimated, and false gods are slain. These themes extended into literature as well, be it through the absurdist eye of Kōbō Abe or the postmodern pen of Haruki Murakami. Such artists have proven a significant influence on me, and my choice of a Japanese word is largely a tribute to that. Zansonsha does not carry the positive connotation of the English survivor, but it does retain the human element that other English terms lack.

Over the years I have become much more independent, but I have not forgotten how I got this far.  I write in honor of those who give of themselves to improve the quality of the lives of others, and I hope that my work will have the same effect on those looking to explore the hard questions of existence. I edit to give voice to those who need assistance sharing their stories with the world. Living is, after all, a shared experience.

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