[Story] On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

tatte

BLACK FRIDAY — 10:40AM, Friday

She sits there, her heart a solid thudding of the metronome, an old man’s pace. The café is a startling white, clean like a repurposed showroom. The rows of baked goods behind the open-air counter are a dash of brown-gold, like yolk nestled in egg-white. Patterns crawl across its interior; grey wisps swim on the marble tabletop; black tiles mark out the honeycomb mosaic floor her brown boots are tapping on. The monochrome is artificial to the strained eye. She has been up since midnight and it’s already almost noon.

To her right, another girl is collapsed against the bistro chair with shopping bags pooled at her feet—the little red star of Macy’s peeks at the trio.

“I guess this is the American Black Friday experience,” the guy on her other side says, somewhat in wonder.

She is too tired to make a scintillating comment. Her cleverness has abandoned her in the wake of the sheer exhaustion from staying up beyond 24 hours, the rapidly dwindling adrenaline of battling in the discount-strewn aisles, and the curious, surreal feeling that Thanksgiving night half a day ago seems like a fraying memory several-years-old.

The plate and cup before her are empty except for crumbs and foam on the rim. She remarks, “I’m starving.”

“Still?” the girl on her right laughs. She’s about to say something else when a server stops in front of their table.

“Oh, my food is here,” the guy says, sitting up, as the server places the croissant sandwich on the table and whisks away the number stand.

She might not know now but she will remember and thank this moment to come. This moment as wet sunlight is touching her weary face and a warmth buds unexpectedly, as the realization washes over her that perhaps all she thought she had known about what love means is wrong, as he nudges the sandwich towards her—stubbled face, black-rimmed glasses, blood-shot eyes, incompatible sexuality and all—and tiredly says, “Eat up.”

It dawns on her gently, an idea of what matters in this waiting and searching for someone to like simply and wholeheartedly. She hugs it close to her.

THE DAY BEFORE, THANKSGIVING DAY — 11:40PM, Thursday

She is in the car, listening. Her fingers are numb from the cold. She pulls out striped gloves from her pockets, wears them concentratedly, but cannot block out the la-di-da voices around her.

She knows, in this tiny vehicle weaving through the night, that she is placing something down. As she casts aside old understandings, she is uncertain what to think next. Some new understanding is taking shape in the dark, still nebulous.

She doesn’t know now that she will—in a sun-lit café the next morning after an unbelievable night—finally understand that perhaps reputation means nothing, as do complexion and pretensions, superficial impressions and fleeting interactions, and too much a dosage of self-assurance.

But, there and then, in the car, all she thinks is yes as her phone screen lights up with the message: Black Friday shopping? Like in 15 min?

Her gloved finger starts typing out a reply.

November is…

On a sunny day, we did an impromptu photoshoot outside the dorm room when it was not yet cold 😇

November is the great mystery of daylight saving time. It’s the time when night comes early, days turn dark in mid-swallow, and the sense of time grows distorted. It also makes me freak out a bit when it’s 5pm but it feels like 9pm and I’ve not yet started on my paper.

November is days bleeding into one another in a whirlwind of the now familiar routine of classes and paper-writing (I just wrote an 8-page paper last week on Descartes’ Meditations — throwback to KI!), meeting new people and connecting with friends that begin to feel curiously familiar. It’s a whirlwind interspersed with brilliant encounters with famous people in different settings (sitting in the audience as Elton John received Humanitarian of the Year from our dean onstage; attending a lunch workshop with Man Booker Prize-winning writer Michael Ondaatje, who autographed my copy of The English Patient!!).

November is cold. I’m swamped in huge furry coats, woolly gloves, and snuggly scarves, with the heater turned on high. I’ve also gotten a tad bit more used to people using Fahrenheit — thirty basically means freezing. A usual morning on the groggy side looks like this: Wakes up — opens the Weather app on my phone — stares at the 3°C below CAMBRIDGE — swipes right and surprise! SINGAPORE displays 30°C. 😭

November feels at once brand new, cloaked in autumn gold, and like the same old calendar month. Classes are winding down to the final two weeks — there’s the Harvard-Yale Game this weekend at New Haven and next week’s Thanksgiving Break in between. Then it’ll be reading period, final exams, and WINTER BREAK! I’ll be in Singapore for three weeks 🏝 and then in Washington, D.C. for ten days (look out for updates!).

November is discovering the magic of the BBC’s Jane Austen adaptations. When I had to read Emma for Hum 10 and my roommate Ani declared that she had watched the 2009 BBC Emma miniseries no less than five times, I promptly went on Hulu, clicked Episode 1, and proceeded to say goodbye to my next four hours. I finished the entire series in one sitting. It was magical and redefining. Here comes the newest pivotal dilemma of my life: who should I choose — (A) wet-shirt, broody, principled Mr. Darcy (by the incomparable Colin Firth in the 1995 version) or (B) handsome, intensely sweet, morally righteous Mr. Knightley (by the brilliantly subtle Jonny Lee Miller in the 2009 version)? QUESTION OF THE CENTURY.

darcy

“Well, of course you must choose me.”

knightley

“How can it not be me?”

November is listening to Taylor Swift’s new album Reputation at midnight. ❤️ I’ve been listening to her songs since I was eleven, through her eponymous album, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and now this; her songs are my go-to in times of crushes and heartbreak from unstarted loves. November is having her songs on repeat enough to last me (and ride out my habit of persistently playing a favorite song for 100000 times till I get sick of it) through the remainder of 2017. It’s my roommates dying from hearing her new songs in the morning when my alarm clock goes off, gets snoozed, and the scene iterates… HAHA.

My favourite Reputation lyrics

“You should take it as a compliment that I’m talking to everyone here but you.” — Gorgeous (THIS LYRIC)

“Is the end of all the endings? My broken bones are mending / With all these nights we’re spending / Up on the roof with a school girl crush / Drinking beer out of plastic cups.” — King of My Heart

“This ain’t for the best / My reputation’s never been worse, so / You must like me for me.” — Delicate

“Even in my worst lies you saw the truth in me.” — Dress

“There are no rules when you show up here / Bass beat rattling the chandelier / Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year.” — This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

“I’d kiss you as the lights went out / Swaying as the room burned down / I’d hold you as the water rushes in / If I could dance with you again.” — Dancing With Our Hands Tied

“I want your midnights, but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” — New Year’s Day

This time, Taylor also penned two poems included in the limited-release magazines accompanying the physical album — “If You’re Anything Like Me” is acutely vulnerable, but it’s “Why She Disappeared” which uncannily resonates with me.

If You're Anything Like Me_by Taylor Swift

Why She Disappeared_by Taylor Swift

I’ll have a lot more time next week to slow down, take stock of the messy brilliant college semester so far, and blog (!) once Thanksgiving recess starts on November 22. Till then! Keep warm / cool (depending where you’re at) ❤️

Lots of Love,

To warmer days,

Sel

Wheeeeeee

Brevity: Can Fiction Save Felons?

Hi friends, I’m trying out a new feature on this blog (on top of regular posts). Let me know what you think. 🙂 

brevity (2)

Brevity features short weekly posts on the interesting, incisive, or inexplicably moving ideas inspired by my Harvard professors and classmates. It’s a record of the detail in those intellectual and creative moments, as well as an exploration of the curious questions that keep me up at the midnight hour. Here’s an honest snapshot of my mind.

***

Can fiction transform the lives of prison inmates?

I attended “The Words to Say it: Teaching, Writing, and Incarceration” panel last Thursday, featuring a discussion with novelist and Emmy-nominated screenwriter Richard Price, writer and prison-reform educator Edyson Julio, and author and legal scholar Michelle Kuo, moderated by my fiction writing professor cum novelist Claire Messud. In short: so many writers!!! And all of them discussing not simply the craft of writing, but the question that began this post, which on broader terms, entails an interrogation of this:

How does fiction matter to real-world issues? 

As a person who loves to read and write, I think about this question a lot. It bothers me because I can’t seem to find a concrete answer, but I also feel assured in its uncertainty because of course! There is no simple answer in life, least of all in the humanities.

I find this dilemma between what is deemed ‘practical’ and fiction, which is not, so sensitively expressed by Edyson Julio. He is a Bronx native from the Black community — one which is beleaguered by disproportionately high incarceration rates. To put things in perspective, one in three black men can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. As a community, black Americans are incarcerated at an average rate of 5 times that of white Americans.

Going home to write stories felt weirdly self-indulgent.

– Edyson Julio

Yet, what brought him to his incarceration work was a work of fiction, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (I had read an excerpt of it previously during fiction writing workshop). The novel moved him so much that it prompted him to teach creative non-fiction writing class at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. Something unexpected happened: As he taught the inmates how to write, they began to create for themselves whole new personas, inventing new gestures, names, identity, and what seemed to be a new skin to cope with the bleak, violent realities of imprisonment.

Fiction presented for the inmates the possibilities of writing the other self, of transcending a fixed identity of a criminal that they have been condemned to. All three panelists agreed that the current state of incarceration in the US was that even if you didn’t enter prison a criminal, you would leave as one. Can fiction allow them to imagine being more?

What happens to the imagination in jail? The truth is stark: those dreams that the inmates have before entering prison get utterly dispelled. Even when they leave the prison compounds, they are changed, or as Price says, “you can’t get the prison smell off your brain”. In jail, the inmates have been conditioned and manipulated by their environment to fight or flight. It doesn’t occur to them that they are entitled to have dreams. For many, their natural instinct becomes basic survival.

Sometimes, fantasy is on scale with the reality. Your world becomes this vicious crowded phone booth. You think, maybe if I move this way, I’ll get this free pocket of air… You don’t think: “I want to fly a plane”.

– Richard Price

Fiction compels us to inspect the underlying narratives of our culture. That, perhaps, our concept of sin since Genesis — Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — is incomplete. Instead of perceiving the act as falling into an eternal state of sin, it can be viewed as a necessary awakening of human consciousness and a chance for human growth.

Maybe what fiction can accomplish is more subtle. It steers me to comprehension by nurturing the chaos of reality into a recognizable shape. I exercise the muscle of imagination and of empathy. And in spotting similar things between me and the character on the page, I recognize the humanity within myself. What can fiction do for felons? It does what it does for all readers — it allows the inmates to recreate themselves so that they can become multitudes, multitudes that can encompass contradictions in their identities (criminal versus father, son, brother, etc.) and disparities between their dreams and realities.

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman