on my desk: 1984, The Bluest Eye & more!

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a new feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I’ve read for the week, usually for class. This first installment covers some of the books I’ve read from week 2 to week 4 of Junior Spring. 

Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

An immediate classic. So incredibly fresh and vivid despite the years between us. I never did like Mr. Rochester (in Jane Eyre) growing up and this book does not redeem him. Rhys has created a backstory for the madwoman in the attic, who only appeared in brief glimpses in Eyre. Yet, the novel very much stands on its own, almost cannibalizing the original with its ferocious exploration of the Creoles in the Carribean. It’s not a retelling, but instead a creative translation across tropics, temporalities, and epistemologies — of a white woman growing up in Jamaica during the time of the British Empire. How does Antoinette become Bertha, locked up in the attic? The chambers of your mind will never be quiet while reading this.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

1984 George Orwell

1984, George Orwell

Can’t believe it took me 4087823 years to read this classic. This is one book that has seeped into our collective consciousness and been normalized — we think of Big Brother when we articulate surveillance; we think of Room 101 when we describe a torture chamber, we now think thoughtcrime as not very surprising at all (politically unorthodox thoughts). The recent past, and even pockets of the present, is in a sense ‘Orwellian’. The policing of thought, interestingly, is tied to the policing of desire — of sex, of the body, of love. The subsuming of love and reproduction under the socialist agape of the state abhors us instinctively. Yet, Winston and Julia’s supposed ‘love story’ is never quite about love. It’s a temporary digression in desire that is rectified. The stark, satirical ending is a diagnosis of dictatorships — every authoritarian regime has power, but they want it to be bolstered by authority (which has to be gained). Even when totally secure of power, there is that eternal fragility and insecurity towards achieving ‘one body, one nation, one mind’ and the constant use of the language of ‘for the people’. At least, 1984 strips its authoritarian regime bare of any pretension or instinct for amelioration — the contradictions are there for all too see. Elsewhere, in real life, the masquerade goes on.

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

a mercy Toni Morrison

A Mercy, Toni Morrison

A powerful story of suffering — as bond or bondage? — and wilderness, told through Florens, a young black girl enslaved in the early years of European settlement in America — 1682 when “Virginia was still a mess.”

The criticism of the capitalist apparatus of slavery is subtle but impossible to ignore.

There was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at [Ortega’s plantation] and a remote labour force in Barbados. Right? Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars.

The Puritan task of an errand into wilderness also takes shape through the stories of the women, each struggling to keep their internal wilderness restrained. But I’m left thinking, what is ‘wilderness’ in the first place? It’s nature and what was there before. Or is it very much a colonial construction, an attempt at legibility, of rhetorical erasure to justify their settlement (it’s raw, it’s clean, it’s up for grabs!), a patriarchal way of control and of domestication?

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕

The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Painful to read. In the first few pages, Morrison tells you the entire story. And yet, we cannot help but read on, driven by the urgency and rawness of her language. It’s about a little black girl who just desperately, fervently wanted blue eyes. The desire is a sign of an internalized inability to recognize her own personhood, worth, and beauty. One thinks of racism in quiet, insidious ways: reifying the violence of the normative subject in the West (Pecola is “the good subject”). But also in terrifying ways: the cosmology of whiteness is still ever-present — I wonder if the pursuit of certain beauty standards reflects that even for myself. We could call it, as Profé Carrasco does, the cosmological conviction of racism:

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Dark Princess W. E. B. Du Bois

Dark Princess, W. E. B. Du Bois

Part romance, part quest, Dark Princess is unlike anything else I’ve read. At times allegorical, often a blending of genres, it meshes sharp critique of local politics (flushed by money), of racism, and most piercingly, of the color line within the color line: peoples who are oppressed, or even with the same oppressor, will not understand their oppression in the same way. How do you form an ethical community of resistance across faultlines (class, cultural, racial)? What does it mean to construct international solidarity when there is an uneven experience of violence? Even now, the chasm exists: the cosmopolitan elite seeking to liberate the masses despite widening gulfs.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

A Woman Named Solitude Andre Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude, André Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude reads like part magical realism, part fairytale, part oral tradition. Yet, every once so often, historical dates and figures rupture the poetic shimmer of the language and we are reminded: all that we are reading — atrocities, revolts, humans treated like cattle, the cosmological upending of an entire continent’s lives — is in fact reality, or truth. The novel starts with “Once upon a time, on a strange planet, there was a little black girl named Bayangumay” (1). While the reference to “the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto” on the last page of the epilogue subtly ties two human holocausts together, Schwarz-Bart does it so much more sparingly and movingly than Philips.

The narrative distance (a detachment that’s no less passionate) brings a certain universality and oneness of human suffering to the story of Bayangumay and later, Rosalie who will metamorphose into Solitude. As Sarah De Mul terms it, the “forgotten holocausts” of the world in the case of this novel zoom into the brief span of years when the Africans enslaved in the Carribean vacillated between freedom and return to slavery, under the political machinations and Anglo-French rivalry of the metropole.

Caught between her yellow body and her black heart, Solitude is not just one “whose nation no longer exists, whose village has been destroyed and whose ancestors are dead” (64), but also one who loses her mother at a young age, abandoned with a yearning for Africa and Man Bobette’s secret. That Rosalie grows into Solitude, with her soulless eyes and her laughter is a soft yet powerful resistance. Her laugh — alongside the guttural laughs of other women, from her mother to the Congo woman Euphrosine — unsettles. In a land of “lies” (81) and “madness” (77), ruled by white men and (to a less extent) women, the unsettling nature of laughter represents a particular discursive contract that subverts — a moment of irrational recognition, rehearsed unexpectedness; it brings to mind Freud’s theory on jokes and their relation to the unconscious. In the face of such violence, Solitude mows over white men — surprised at the blood on her own hands — but ultimately, in the face of death, can only laugh.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

The Nature of Blood Carl Phillips

The Nature of Blood, Carl Phillips

The many different strands of The Nature of Blood reminds me of what Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes called ‘multinarratives’ in a multiracial and polycultural universe and also one particular mode of Friedman’s three juxtapositional comparisons: collage. Stephen, Eva, Othello, the Jews of Portobuffole, and Malka’s stories are put side by side, each in its own distinctive context, but read together for their in/commensurability. The form of the novel itself refrains from the prescriptive and the didactic. Instead, the collage of narratives across time and space presented to us puts the autonomy in the hands of the reader. What rises to the surface when we see things side by side, whether we choose to make that comparison ourselves, and what constellations/collisions we end up holding in our hands is ours. The novel is suggestive.

What I really liked about the novel is its almost palimpsestic nature of time, which reflects the traumatic nature of remembering, of repetition, of unknowability. The narrative time frame defamiliarizes known stories (I, for one, didn’t realize that Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was an intertextual piece) — for instance, Othello remains nameless throughout, and his own observations of Venice (full of “enchanting promises” as well as “betrayal”) flesh out his diasporic subjectivity which fleshes out all the invisible and unsaid blanks within Shakespeare’s play. Othello’s inability to see the parallels between him and the Jews living in the ghetto is made all the more stark given the coeval story of the Jews of Portobuffole happening in Venice. Similarly, I found myself spotting the ironic, painful symmetry in Malka and Eva’s experiences — the feelings of being dehumanized into animals (“monkey-people” for Eva; “cattle” for Malka); their flashes of first-person confession that drowns amidst their silencing within the larger society.

In their respective experiences of dislocation, trauma, dehumanization, and othering, there is sameness in their difference, and difference in their sameness.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔

***

Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts? Do you like this new feature? ٩◔‿◔۶

Lots of love,

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My Junior Spring Harvard Classes ≧◡≦

Selina Xu Harvard Class Schedule (Junior Spring)

MY FAVORITE SEMESTER INTELLECTUALLY! ❤️ Before I gush, a few things:

  1. I’m back to four classes (and also auditing a fifth).
  2. This has been the best schedule I’ve had so far, with no classes on Thursdays AND Fridays.
  3. But in terms of sheer reading, I have to average three books per week (not including some of the theory/academic journals I have to read for CompLit & English, as well as my own independent research for my junior tutorial).
  4. I’ve taken classes with three of the professors in previous semesters (Homi Bhabha, David Carrasco, and David Wang).

Here’s a snapshot of my desk with stacks of books organized according to each class, from left to right, HDS 2052, ENG 191C, and COMPLIT 277:

Selina Xu Books Harvard Classes

HDS 2052: Religion Around Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez: Their Writings and Lives — Davíd Carrasco

Profé Carrasco was my Hum 10 seminar professor in my Freshman fall. Here’s a snippet of the blog post I wrote way back in September 2017, Things I Love:

The room is warm. My pulse is throbbing at an almost manic pace. In a hitched breath’s moment of unconscious cerebration, it occurs to me that I am surrounded by knowledge coming to life — in eager minds, raw stories, bustling thoughts, and this palpable sense of convivencia and of shared humanity that emerges from within all of us when we discuss vanished worlds in ancient texts (Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Poetics, Symposium…). Unbelievable, but somehow it is happening, in this time and place, in this infinite now. (I am really loving my Humanities seminar under Professor David Carrasco! Every time I walk out of class, some ineffable change washes over me; I’m not sure what it is, but I feel just a bit more comfortable with uncertainty and a little bit more certain about what gives me meaning.)

No surprise that I’m taking a class again with Profé!

This class is my first venture into the Harvard Divinity School, looking at literature through the lens of religion. In particular, we focus on two Nobel Prize-winning writers, Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez, and the religion AROUND their writings and lives. ‘Religion’ is meant in the broadest sense of the word — think of homeland and quests, sacred places and borders, memory and myths, terror and magical flight, ghosts and demons, goodness and evil, slavery and freedom, women and machismo, colonial violence and political and spiritual forms of resistance.

I’ve always been intrigued by the connection between holy and profane texts: Confucian ethics and Daoist cosmology have shaped China’s Four Literary Classics, the Greek pantheon of gods have sustained myth and tragedy, Christian symbolism and morality are intertwined with much of European literature; the same can be said for the Indic, the Islamic, and the Buddhist traditions…

The sacred and the secular are always interrelated. Great literature touches something divine.

ENGLISH 191C: Constellations — Homi K. Bhabha

My freshman spring seminar with Professor Bhabha was one of the most formative classes I’ve taken at Harvard. Even several semesters apart, I would often find myself referring to a fragment of conversation from that seminar — a certain way of looking at literature that is interdisciplinary, broadly humanist. I once wrote a short post on ‘Why Literature‘, which was inspired by that seminar.

When I tell people about this class, many are perplexed about the word ‘constellations.’ I picture it as a tapestry made from disparate intellectual threads: clusters of ideas, polyphonic conversations, and what Walter Benjamin calls “the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one” (On the Concept of History). I can’t reduce this class to a single topic — it’s very much about identity, movement, communities, and collective speculation through literature.

The wide arc of historical experience is a genealogy of histories of inequality and injustice, and life-worlds of individuals who seek to make a claim to human dignity from a variety of contexts. How can we conceive of colonization and segregation in dialogue with migration and the predicament of refugees? What does citizenship mean in an age of international cosmopolitanism and national sovereignty?

COMPLIT 277: Literature, Diaspora, and Global Trauma — Karen Thornber

Diaspora (noun)

  • The voluntary or involuntary migrations of peoples
  • A national, ethnic, or religious community living far from its native land
  • Ethnic minority groups of migrant origins residing and acting in host countries but maintaining strong sentimental and material links with their countries of origin (Stéphane Dufoix)

‘Diaspora’ has no fixed, singular definition. I like to think of it as dispersions and movements, with globalized communities and networks forming in their wake.

This being my first CompLit class, the comparative aspect really does stand out. Comparisons are never neutral: How do we think beyond our own frame of reference? How can ‘equal’ comparisons be undertaken in an unequal world? Can we start from our own position and not assume it as the center of the universe? Can we make comparisons that don’t reflect the structures of domination of the world?

The syllabus traverses many corners of the globe (every week we move to somewhere new!): African; East, South, Southeast, and West Asian (Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Korean, Vietnamese); and Middle Eastern (Jewish, Lebanese); as well as Latin American and Caribbean. Can we juxtapose traumas of one diaspora beside another?

More broadly speaking, I’m interested in trauma that’s not only event-based, but also prolonged, meandering, constant; not only centered on the poignant, persecuted figure of the refugee, but also the often invisible, assimilating, hybrid migrant.

HISTLIT 98: Junior Tutorial — Catherine Nguyen

I work with my tutor, Dr. Nguyen, towards a 6000-word (roughly 24 pages) essay on any possible topic that is remotely historical/literary, which is to say anything at all. I’m still brainstorming, but I have narrowed it down to the Anthropocene (the geological age of humans) novel, or climate fiction (cli-fi). For a long time, I was exploring my usual interests: diaspora, globalization, capitalism, postcolonialism. They all revolved around big ideas that undergirded my academic study: What does literary self-representation reveal about a subject? What is the relationship between writing and the self?

But, this semester, I’m quite obsessed with a different question: What new challenges does climate change or the Anthropocene pose to the work of the novel?

Our collective (in)ability to imagine climate change or to even imagine a future without us that is immediate, realistic, and urgent is ripe for critical dissection.

I’m totally new to the realm of climate fiction and eco-criticism. If you have recommendations for ANYTHING that could possibly be interesting, please send them my way. I need collisions! Constellations! Violent, rupturing, crazy inspirations!

CHNSLIT 245R: Literature & The State of Emergency — David Der-wei Wang

I’m auditing this class! The state of emergency — in the vein of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben — denotes the suspension of regular law and the intervention of the national sovereign. Yet, when the ‘state of emergency’ becomes normalized, regularized, and naturalized, the supposed state of exception becomes the rule.

Through case studies across the Chinese diaspora such as Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, and Lhasa, the class explores sovereignty, bare life, biopower, necropolitics, cyber-politics, contagion, disaster, slow violence, apocalypse, etc.

***

The semesters have really flown by. Gosh. Read previous renditions of my semester’s worth of classes below:

Happy to chat about any of these topics!!! 🐣✨🌲

Lots of love,

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I, Istanbul

Note: Thank you to Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and to our phenomenal trip leader Jesse for the chance to spend two weeks of my winter break in Turkey. Harvard kids, apply!!! Check out the program here.

Selina Xu Harvard CMES Turkey Winter Excursion

***

The cypress and plane trees, the rooftops, the heartache of dusk, the sounds coming from the neighborhood below, the calls of hawkers and the cries of children playing in mosque courtyards mingled in my head and announced emphatically that, hereafter, I wouldn’t be able to live anywhere but in their city.

My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Funny how all you need is a novel to throw you back into the feeling that a city gave you. Memory isn’t too reliable now that I’m sitting on my bed in Cambridge trying to recollect the city from the glimpses and fragments on my phone camera roll. And Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red.

Istanbul has to be seen from up above — the balcony of the Galata Tower, the mountaintop views at the Pierre Loti Café, on the cable car from the waterside at Eyüp. After the ascent, or during, there’s a breathtaking moment where your eyes drink in the three peninsulas: on one side, Asia, the other, Europe, and then the historical side with a skyline of minarets, domes, coastal villas, electric lines.

Golden Horn Selina Xu

As I type this post, pausing ever so often, I am casually flipping through the dog-eared pages of My Name Is Red, which has traveled with me from Istanbul to Singapore to Cambridge — I started reading it on the rocking ferry across the Golden Horn and finished it on the red-eye flight from Istanbul to Singapore. Even a continent away, now, the pages still immediately engulf me in the chill and mystery of winding streets; the sheets of rain tickling a Bosphorus that has seen far too many conquerors and armies on its banks; the incredible awe that leaden domes, cypress trees, stone walls, minaret towers inspire at first sight; the bitter burn of çayı (tea) when gulped down too fast; the clink of teaspoons against the curve of the glass; the sound and fury of lives past; the romance of Istanbul.

Words, photos, and memories coalesce.

I think of sensory vignettes. The meat and onion-filled manti (dumplings) with a generous scoop of yogurt, topped off with a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. Striking blue tiles. Ornate stalactite patterns. Golden pyramids of baklavas. Cigarette butts on the floor, embers glowing. A hint of fog, always. The heartache of dusk dissipated by the fluorescent glow of the streetlamp. The city is, to the eye, a painting.

Selina Xu Istanbul Harvard January Trek CMESBaklava Selina Xu

I, Istanbul, the city sings and intones. A first-person proclamation that asserts its undisputed character amidst modernization.

But Istanbul is so hard to unravel. History assaults you on the streets, so saturated that it seeps in through your soles with all its layers and contradictions. Once the epicenter of Christendom and then the heart of the Muslim caliphate when conquered by Mehmed II in 1453, Constantinople was the seat of the Sultan till 1923 — the year the Turkish Republic was founded. The modern republic was for Turks, an ethnic-driven nationalism that would erase and stifle the breathing space even further (after the 1915 Armenian genocide) for the minorities.

Who gets to define who counts as a citizen? In our two weeks there, we saw Greek schools and Orthodox churches, Armenian foundations, Syrian and Iranian restaurants. What is Turkishness if these people have all lived on this piece of land for centuries, through the rise and fall of three empires? What is it like to grow up in a state where you don’t officially belong and yet its lands are all that you’ve known?

On January 19th, 2020, I attended the first protest in my life, commemorating Hrant Dink’s assassination 13 years ago outside what was once the offices of the Armenian weekly Agos and now Hrant Dink’s site of memory. People held placards that read “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism” and “We are all Hrant. We are all Armenian.” A Turkish journalist of Armenian heritage, Dink fought for minority rights in a country where such causes counted as violating Article 301 of the Turkish penal code (penalizing remarks against the state or insults against Turkishness).

If there’s one place I recommend that you visit in Istanbul apart from Hagia Sophia, it would be the Site of Memory. I knew nothing about the man before visiting but was moved by his fiery sense of justice and bold crusade for his beliefs. His words would eventually cost him his life, but I walked away realizing that ideas are bulletproof. They live on.

May my pen too never falter.

Hrant Dink protest 2020

Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, call you by whatever name:
Be a book on the palm of my hand,
let me run my fingers over your ridges,
your weathered pages,
blemished margins,
the ink illegible,
in a font of sorrow,
a palimpsest of empires and histories,
layer upon layer,
teach me how to read you.

Good night x

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