SWF 2020: Zadie Smith’s Intimations

Singapore Writers Festival 2020 is happening from now till 8 Nov. 🎉
Read my overview of the festival here.

This is my first time hearing Zadie Smith’s voice and she is just as sharp as she is on the page. Parts of what she says resonate so much it feels like she is stapling words into my head.

Over the course of an hour, Zadie talks about writing (how the impulse arose for Intimations, her newest essay collection), the “platforms” that dominate our lives, and about language.

When she picked up the pen it was initially out of an urge to return to a distance away from technology, back to her rate, her time, her space. As writers, she says, there’s more than one way to think, more than one way to write, and more than one way to live — you don’t have to live at the frenetic pace of clicking notifications, scrolling, giving hot takes, and doing violent arguments. We think this is how we ought to live, “embedded in the algorithm,” and that it’s as natural as breathing.

But it was invented by a couple guys on the West Coast of the United States.

Watching her on my screen, animated, freckles capering about, the lure is undeniable.

She interrogates, reminding, “Things could be otherwise,” which she calls a mantra for all writers; that no matter how feverish, how manic the collective dream of social media, and how convincing ideology is when disguised as nature, writers need to observe better. And to observe requires them to sometimes abstain from the language of their times, to separate themselves from a massive medium (be it the TV in the 80s, or Instagram now), and to engage with — not symbols, not abstract ideas — the detail of lives.

The language of our times. What is it?

A few words surface frequently over the course of her conversation with moderator Joel Tan. Cultural appropriation. Privilege. Memes. What it means to be a woman. What it means to be black, white, Chinese, other, a person of color (or not), underrepresented, overrepresented, to be a good informed citizen.

“Language is not truth,” says Zadie.

Language offers a frame to make sense of our lives because experience is without form, as is interior life, as are our feelings. And perhaps all our lives are a makeshift attempt to grab onto a frame for the roiling madness of experience. No frame — a novel, an article, an argument, a meme, a caption, a slogan, a quote — can be permanent. The language that we hold onto is always transformable, partial, relative, and will one day be washed away as was the language of the generations before us. Our 19th century human counterparts had an utterly different conception of “equality.” No surprise. Those in the 22nd century will sweep away our language too.

The danger, then, as Zadie suggests, is in letting a secondary medium provide you with the language of thought and assuming that its language is innocent, neutral even. Social media mediates, nudges, forces upon us a certain language, standardised by algorithms to the point of banality. She brings up the example of Gmail offering to finish our sentences.

I wonder if she’s right. Then I think about who is even listening. Zadie probably wonders the same thing because at some point in the hour, she says, big eyes staring right at the camera, “I wonder if I’m writing for a person who is quickly, swiftly ceasing to exist.”

The kind of person who reads more books and essays than memes and listicles? Or the kind of person who isn’t embedded in the algorithm? Or the kind who, paraphrasing Orwell, do their own thinking instead of letting others do their thinking for them?

***

Zadie Smith is no doubt provocative. I love that.

In particular, I take time reflecting on her insistence that writing should neither be a social media exhibit nor a performance for the algorithm because I do write for an audience (hi there, you who are reading). It’s near impossible to be Marcus Aurelius nowadays — someone writing only for himself — unless I’m keeping a physical diary.

I guess I don’t have an answer. In secondary school, I was obsessed with Facebook. Then, I came to Instagram two years later than all my friends did, only after I had finished A-levels. Over the past few months of COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve intentionally weaned myself off social media for long stretches of time.

But this blog, this corner of the internet, feels different. It nourishes me instead of depletes. It allows for ambiguity, for nuance, for meandering paragraphs instead of pithy, immediate, surface representations. Maybe that’s why I still read novels and am trying to write one. To make sense of this world, this life, this moment. For me, it feels like a hard hard thing to do. And so I write.

***

Thank you to Zadie Smith and moderator Joel Tan for the illuminating conversation! Many thanks to the wonderful Singapore Writers Festival team for the complimentary digital pass! Check out the exciting programme in the days ahead here.

I’ll be covering Liu Cixin’s event tomorrow!!!

Lots of love,

Singapore Writers Festival 2020!!!

Hi folks, it has been a while : )

First up: a big thank-you to the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) team for giving me a complimentary Digital Festival Pass!

This year, the festival will be FULLY ONLINE for the first time ever, making it accessible to book-lovers and wordsmiths worldwide!

I’ll be covering a few events from SWF 2020 on this blog in a week-long feature from 30 Oct to 8 Nov, as I experience the excitement from the comforts of home post-wisdom tooth extraction (my dental appointment is tomorrow, ouch).

Some of my favorite authors will be speaking!!! Would like to highlight a few names in SWF’s amazing, star-studded lineup from around the globe, which includes Liu Cixin, Magaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Teju Cole (from Harvard!), Tracy K. Smith, and more…

Click here to learn how to access SWF 2020!
(‎The Digital Festival Pass gives you access to more than 100 programmes, including all of the above author talks, and more. Students get a 40% discount.)

30 Oct, Fri 9:00 PM – 10:00 PM SGT
Zadie Smith: Intimations (event link)

Zadie Smith discusses her new collection of essays written in the early days of lock down. How can we think ourselves through this historical moment? What does it mean to submit to a new reality or resist it? What is the relationship between time and work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us?

***

31 Oct, Sat 12:00 PM – 01:00 PM SGT
Liu Cixin: The Possibilities of Science and Imagination 刘慈欣: 科学与幻想的无限可能 (event link)

面对人类世潜在的现实状况,我们应否能转向科幻世界推测人类的未来?以长篇科幻小说《三体》三部曲而名扬国际的中国科幻小说家刘慈欣分享自己的作品与创作心得,听他谈谈自己如何透过科学与幻想的视角看世界。

As we grapple with the potential realities of the Anthropocene, should we (and can we) look to science fiction to speculate the future of humanity? Best known for his trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, Chinese author Liu Cixin speaks on his works, and the extent to which he views the world through the lens of science and imagination.

***

1 Nov, Sun 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM SGT
Cassandra Clare: A Night In Pandemonium (event link)

From The Mortal Instruments to The Last Hours series, best-selling YA author Cassandra Clare has built a mega world of mundanes, shadowhunters and parabatais that many of us have grown to know and love. In this meet-the-author session, join Cassandra as she speaks about her literary inspirations, writing ventures, and how one can never run out of stories to tell.

***

3 Nov, Tue 9:00 PM – 10:30 PM SGT
In Conversation With: Margaret Atwood (event link)

From women’s rights to climate disasters, Margaret Atwood’s genre-defying works bear an eerie resonance to present-day realities. When fiction becomes fact, where do we go from there? Margaret Atwood speaks with novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal about the power of a writer engaging with critical conversations, and the ways in which fiction can witness, resist and inspire regardless of where we are in history.

… And so many more!

Visit www.singaporewritersfestival.com for the full line-up of more than 200 events inspired by the theme of ‘Intimacy.’ ❤

And stay tuned as i report from the virtual frontlines! 🔥🔥🔥

Lots of love (I’M SO EXCITED),

Book Review: The Golden Age 黄金时代 by Wang Xiaobo 王小波

In 1997, two decades after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Xiaobo died prematurely of a heart attack. This was five years after his debut novella The Golden Age made him one of the most widely read and discussed authors among disillusioned youth in China. While initially met with hostility from the literary establishment, he’s now a cult favorite.

The novella (his most iconic work) is a bold foray into love and sexuality under a totalitarian regime — a Kafkan take on the link between chastity and political orthodoxy (a rather Orwellian theme, think: 1984). The narrative is a story framed within a story: the narrator, Wang Er, recounts his affair with a young doctor Chen Qingyang in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, from the vantage of twenty years after. The triangulation of sex, language, and power in the story sets the stage for an absurdist love story on multiple levels. For one, there’s the Maoist sublime at the backdrop of the action, wherein each person’s body is subsumed in ideological fanaticism and a libidinous impulse directed towards the state. For another, there are the two protagonists, who use their bodies in defiance of Party politics through bizarre sexual escapades — the most delightfully weird scene is them having sex in the wilderness, beside a water buffalo. An ironic parody of the rural country, which lies at the heart of China’s “Down to the Countryside” movement (上山下乡), the novella oscillates between resistance and regression, transgression and farce. Sex in The Golden Age functions not just as protest but also as a metaphor for state power and the voluntary, even pleasurable, collaboration of those subject to it.

What I like most is how Wang presents the Cultural Revolution as absurd and obscene in its theatricality and codification of desire. By having his protagonists consecrate the profane dimensions of desire, Wang celebrates a temporary escape from the prevailing ‘truth’ of puritan devotion to the state. The carnal pastime, however, is an almost nihilist negotiation with one’s own body and psyche — Wang’s deadpan language, cavalier tone, and flattened emotional affect powerfully evoke the collective ennui of that era.

While many academics have long perceived the Cultural Revolution as a sadomasochistic theatre, where the state dominates and the individual submits, a different portrait appears in The Golden Age.  The story is an unlikely sexual carnival, à la Mikhail Bakhtin. Through Wang Er’s deadpan humor, cavalier tone, and reverence towards sex, the carnivalesque energy thrums, parodying and undermining the socialist agape. The sexual detail in the narrator’s confessions to the authorities (检讨书) and the festive spectacle of the couple’s struggle sessions (公开批斗会) point to the subversive nature of language. By indulging in the absurdity of their situation, the characters escape mere victimhood and reclaim their bodies and minds from Party ideology.

The Golden Age hints at revolutionary nostalgia — not for the Maoist agrarian utopia, but for the lost possibility of love even in a time of extreme violence and total upheaval of meaning. By reigning in explicit violence and unleashing its dark energy through the absurdist carnival of sex, The Golden Age ultimately gestures to love as the forbidden password to liberation.

You kissed my belly button, right? I was right on the edge—I almost fell in love with you in that moment.