A Stay-home Wednesday, by the hour

(This is an ‘A Day in the Life’ post that I’ve only done once before – read: A New York Sunday. So here’s another one, credits to Kyla Zhao my love, for the inspiration.)

Girl and bunny gazing at the city of lights

12:00am I go onto Canvas, click the Zoom link, and wait for the class to load. I’m on my bed, wearing a t-shirt and elephant pants. I angle the camera so that my life-sized Pooh bear lingers mysteriously at the edge of the frame. Here begins the second last class of my semester: HDS 2052 Religion Around Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez: Their Writings and Lives, taught by Profé David Carrasco. Every class this week is a farewell ritual. The virtual simulacrum of campus education is coming to an end, as is the last structure to my days…

1:48am We are discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m trying hard to reign in my yawns, but then the discussion grabs my attention and dispels drowsiness. Someone draws our attention to a passage:

So effective was the quarantine that the day came when the emergency situation was accepted as a natural thing and life was organized in such a way that work picked up its rhythm again and no one worried any more about the useless habit of sleeping.

In a novel filled with plagues of all kind, the first one that the inhabitants of Macondo encounter is the plague of insomnia, which induces the loss of memory, a fictionalized past that can only be read in tarot cards, and an experience of solitude for each and every one of them. This state of emergency becomes normalized.

As the class chatters, I balance the novel on my thigh and flip through my annotations. I spot my scribble of “Covid…” on the margins of page 322. Towards the end of the novel, there’s another plague of unending rain for four years, eleven months, and two days, during which the sense of time vaporizes:

He had seen them as he passed by, sitting in their parlors with an absorbed look and folded arms, feeling unbroken time pass, relentless time, because it was useless to divide it into months and years, and the days into hours, when one could do nothing but contemplate the rain.

Staying at home, my days blur into each other. OHYS is as much a portrait of a family as it is, uncannily, a history of humanity.

2:15-2:40am Class is over. Somehow I’m too excited to sleep. I put my legs up vertically against the wall and cultivate darkness in my head. Sometime between these timestamps, I fall asleep.

12:03pm My mom bursts into my room, hollering at me to wake up. I stare at her from under my blankets, bolster, pillows, and jungle of hair. She narrows her eyes at me, and barks, “Go weigh yourself, quick!”

12:10pm I weigh myself and write my weight down with a marker on the glass board. The numbers are in steady ascent, with only occasional dips. There’s no bucking the trend. My mom shoots me a withering look and dramatically enunciates, “Oh my God.” My dad is more subtle: “Maybe try to eat less today. Don’t lose faith.” I secretly pledge not to snack for today, but my blasé countenance irks my mother, who threatens, “You’re not getting rice.”

12:43pm We eat lunch. My mom cooks up a storm with fish, eggs, tofu, and winter melon soup. My dad sneaks me a bowl of brown rice.

1:31pm My mom absolves me from dishwashing duty because I need to read for class.

1:47pm I lean against the wall, reading Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria. I rarely read book-length travel writing so the book is quite a departure from what I’ve been reading lately. Tonight, the seminar will be discussing narratives of return between the UK and Nigeria.

4:03pm I get weirdly hungry and surreptitiously eat a bowl of peanuts. As I down them with tea, I type out this post in medias res.

5:43pm The daily numbers are out (more accurately, they have been out for two hours) but I’m somehow the first in my family to spot it. My dad’s in a video conference and my mom is napping. There are 690 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore today, a slight rise from the day before (528) but in a downward trend overall. Relieved that the daily infection rate is no longer above a thousand, I take a screenshot of the article and send it to the family group chat.

6:09pm A buzz. I look up from my reading to see a bee pummeling the windowpane with its head, oblivious to the fact that freedom and open skies are but a gap away, relentless in its myopia. Behind me, my parents are getting ready to eat a watermelon. My mom asks, “Is it red or is it yellow?” My dad doesn’t know either. They stare at it, willing it to be either. (It’s yellow.)

yellow watermelon singapore

7:55pm I finish reading Looking for Transwonderland.

8:48pm It pours. Thunderstorms announce themselves with a rustle of the trees. I pull up a poem of weathers that I sent in a funny email correspondence yesterday:

Is the sky a circular plot?
A world repeating, as Ursula said.
Or maybe a theater above our heads,
playing in unbroken, relentless time,
watching our solitude in silent mime,
until we look up to contemplate?

9:20pm My family gets ready for our daily dose of Zumba in the living room, as lightning flashes outside like a palpable instrumental. I navigate the Sunny Funny Fitness Youtube channel on the TV. My favorite routines so far are her 15 minute BTS, Dance Monkey, Fancy, Azukita, and 22 minute Diet Dance workouts. Even my dad joins in for five minutes, bobbing to the beat. My mom and I shimmy and leap around till we are soaked in sweat. “I’m a puddle,” I yell. “Burn your fats!” my mother exclaims happily.

10:03pm I take an icy cold shower and then steam my face, with my hair in a turban (because I woke up too late to do it this morning).

10:52pm Staying at home has whittled down my skincare routine. First, I abandoned sunscreen. Then, the entire morning routine flew out the window. Next, my multi-step nighttime skincare routine started shrinking. Now, there are only four steps left: hydrating mist, hydro-plumping re-texturizing serum, eye gel, and snail cream.

11:03pm I clean my laptop, phone, glasses, and books for class with alcohol wipes and spread them out on a bath towel.

11:36pm I write my novel-in-progress and this blog post on the bed.

12:45am Zoom time! It’s my final class of the spring semester — COMPLIT 277 Literature, Diaspora, and Global Trauma, taught by Professor Karen Thornber.

At one point, I had wished this semester would just end amidst the tumult of packing, goodbyes, flying, quarantine, climbing infection rates and death tolls, and a world that seems to be collapsing. But, the tenuous thread linking me to campus has been a patch of sanity and clarity in a life that’s gradually losing its outline. In times like this, the luxury of university education is made starkly apparent — it’s the luxury of thinking about big questions beyond the myopia of the crisis, of reading, writing, conversing, and learning amidst life-and-death turmoil. Reading puts things in perspective — the broader questions on migration, displacement, dignity, and citizenship are as urgent as ever. In a moment when individuals seem so powerless, swept up in the waves of history, I’m not looking for prescriptions of social justice in the stories I read, but instead, the possibilities of collective speculation. Our awareness of our own vulnerabilities imbues solidarity across space and time.

Weirdly too, in the little pods of our separate existence, technology has reinvented our reality. In this hybrid life of the digital and physical sensorium, it’s remarkable how we’ve come to realize that we are still irrevocably human. Human contact and intimacy are distorted by distance. We are marked indelibly by solitude. Yet, there’s still amazingly convivencia — what Profé Carrasco calls the ‘capacity to give life the upper hand over death.’

life is a rubik's cube

Farewell, Junior Spring. I will remember you forever.

Hope you and your loved ones are all staying safe and healthy. God bless and may the world tide through this soon and reach the other shore. x

Praying and with love,

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Girl writing against the dying light

on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

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 read, usually for class (and now also for leisure). Here are some of the books I’ve read since returning home from campus, during my hermit, 100-step count days inside the house. 

What’s in your library?

What do you read in your midnight hour?

What do you read when you’re in crisis and you’re afraid?

(questions posed by the inimitable Profé Carrasco)

outline rachel cusk

Outline, Rachel Cusk

FREAKING BRILLIANT! I started this on the plane back home and fittingly, the first chapter occurs on a flight. Following a writer who heads to Athens to teach a course on creative writing, the novel flits from a conversation with her seatmate on the plane to those she has with strangers, writers, and students in the city.

Often, I had to pause in the middle of reading just to underline the sentences that would leap off the page about anything: a piece of furniture, a waitress, the ocean, a dog, the back of a man. Cusk has a knack for spinning profound revelations about marriage, motherhood, or writing from the smallest of objects, which can hit you in the gut.

I suppose it’s a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated. It’s the basis of your faith and sometimes you doubt it, but you never renounce it because too much of your life stands on that ground.

His aged back seemed to maroon us both in our separate and untransfigurable histories.

There is something incredibly radical and even divisive about this novel. It’ll either alienatingly subvert all your expectations about novelistic conventions or arrestingly reinvent them. A novel in ten conversations, the narrator’s own story and interiority never comes to the foreground, only emerging in contrast to the tales of those she meets. She is no longer the subject but only a vessel, a cipher, an interlocutor. Or as the novel puts it, a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Koolaids, Rabih Alameddine

Koolaids, Rabih Alameddine

Carnivalesque romp through time and space! A book unlike a book. There is neither a plot nor a clear sense of whose head we are in. Instead, the novel is a pastiche of genres, vignettes, quips, scenes, religious texts, dialogue, emails, and diary entries about the HIV/AIDS crisis and the Lebanese Civil War at the tail-end of the 20th century. The metaphor of war and contagion is particularly resonant right now, amidst the pandemic of our times. Critics have dismissed this novel, but I think it provides a telling glimpse into those whose lives are engaged in a perpetual war against a virus. For the characters, death — social death, and actual death — is the pathos of everyday living because intimacy gains the violence of warfare. Are the parallels not uncanny?

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

Short but moving, with a brilliant title that grasps the soul of the book. Centered on the U.S.-Mexico immigration ‘crisis’, the slim book is about Luiselli’s experience working as a translator for child refugees at the New York immigration court. The forty questions the novel presents are drawn up by immigration attorneys but cannot encompass the complexity of the children’s lives. Yet, their responses determine whether they will be granted legal sanctuary in the U.S. or be repatriated to their old lives of horrific violence. The novel’s answer to the conundrum of interpretation — legal, cultural, narrative — is a reminder to all of us who search for neat answers and resolutions when wrapping our minds around a harrowing, ongoing crisis:

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

When narrative closure must be negotiated, then perhaps undocumented migrants and refugees are in no position to negotiate an end. They can only pray to arrive and to stay:

Before coming to the United States, I knew what others know: that the cruelty of its borders was only a thin crust, and that on the other side a possible life was waiting. I understood, some time after, that once you stay here long enough, you begin to remember the place where you originally came from the way a backyard might look from a high window in the deep of winter: a skeleton of the world, a tract of abandonment, objects dead and obsolete. And once you’re here, you’r ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the great theatre of belonging.

[…]

Why did you come here? I asked one little girl once.

Because I wanted to arrive.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

If you’re interested… read Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E. Anzaldúa; Fronteras Americanas by Guillermo Verdecchia.

The Great Derangement- Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh

In a moment when we are encountering the crisis of our own times, in a magnitude that seems to dwarf all that had come before, Ghosh’s treatise is a reminder that the looming threat of our time is climate change, lest we forget. Compellingly, by approaching climate change from his standpoint as a novelist, Ghosh argues that the modern novel in its fundamental tenets — the ordered regularity of bourgeois life, the gradualist predictability of nature, the human-centric ideals of the European Enlightenment — is complicit in concealing climate change. The climate crisis is, for Ghosh, also a crisis of the imagination.

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

While there are alternative modes of writing in dealing with climate change than the realist one that he presents, Ghosh is still remarkably prescient in diagnosing the representational challenges that climate change poses to our imagination. A seminal work.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

If you’re interested… read my Hist & Lit junior essay, “Reimagining the (Post)Human in the Age of the Anthropocene: the Cyborg Figure in Frankenstein and The Windup Girl,” which I’m happy to send to you ٩◔‿◔۶

Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez

Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez

(Please recommend to me your favorite memoirs, if you have any!! A character I’m currently writing is a ghostwriter, so I’m on a memoir reading streak.)

Impossible not to fall in love with the man and his life. Gabo’s memoir contains an imagination (and a language) so rich that it creates a world of its own.

Unexpectedly, Gabo’s entire life (and his fiction) pivots on the two-day trip with his mother to sell their childhood house. The memoir opens with that trip and goes on to his childhood, his education, his struggles as an emerging writer and journalist, the Barranquilla Group, the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, his influences, and his community. Parts of it gets heavy, especially with the exhaustive introductions of names and places, and yet, the moments of resonance between his real life and his fiction are captivating to stumble upon.

I recommend the first half of the memoir. His childhood bears a haunting, almost unbelievable resemblance to the world in One Hundred Years of Solitude. As Gabo points out in The Fragrance of Guava, a book of interviews, “All I wanted to do was to leave a literary picture of the world of my childhood which […] was spent in a large, very sad house with a sister who ate earth, a grandmother who prophesied the future, and countless relatives of the same name who never made much distinction between happiness and insanity.” How lucky we are that he found it irresistible not to put it onto the page.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

Chronicle of A Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel García Márquez

Compact, stunning novella on murder, complicity, and premonition in a town that’s like an open wound. Based on a true story that happened in Colombia, the novella gives us the ending in its title and on its opening pages: Santiago Nasar is murdered. In a reportage style (no doubt reminiscent of Gabo’s own training as a journalist), the narrator unravels a baffling murder that the whole town knew about and yet no one intervened in. The inevitable conclusion is secondary to the question of collective guilt and human intentions. No single person is guilty because everyone is. The real suspense is not the whodunnit but why those who could have saved him and wanted to simply did not.

I recall Marquez’s observation in his 1982 Nobel lecture, The solitude of Latin America:

A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.

Storytelling is always a second opportunity. To engage in the creation of opposite utopias when reality is disillusioning and truth constantly eludes. In interrogating our darkest sides, a master storyteller like Gabo saves all of our souls.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

***

What I’m currently (re)reading — links go to Goodreads: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Hungry Tide, Lost Children Archive, and Coin Locker Babies.

Stay safe, with love,

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