It marks the first time I’ve managed to draft so long and so complete a novel manuscript, currently at 101,000 words. It’s uneven at parts, needing some serious editing in 2021, and has a few potholes here and there. But the road has been paved from beginning to end!!! The goal is to smoothen and varnish it with sustained rounds of revision in the months ahead.
It (probably—though I don’t keep count) marks the most books I’ve read in a year. Never have I had so much time just to read, think, and write (strip everything else away and only these three pillars are left in life’s ground structure).
It marks plans dashed—spring break in Israel, summer in D.C., senior year on campus—and in the chaos of scattered itineraries and occasionally splintering faith, I found a haven of peace, a reason strong enough to withstand all that derailed, and a purpose that anchored me in these weird times. What I thought would frustrate ended up freeing me. As the space of my physical world constricted to the size of the household, creatively it grew to contain multitudes: the worlds in the pages I read, the worlds growing under my pen, the worlds I dreamed feverishly about. Instead of claustrophobia, I strangely felt more liberated and less burdened than I have in a long while. Distractions were axed, choices were made for me by the external state of affairs, and all I had left before me was a desk, a laptop, and an open, blank calendar for my mind to inscribe upon.
Standing on the last square of 2020 and gazing back, I’m grateful. I’m lucky to be in Singapore, where community cases number mostly zero on most days, things are opening up (Phase 3!), vaccines will be provided to all for free, and the death rate is low. I’m blessed with a stable, loving, and supportive home and “a room of one’s own.” My life is animated with stories and colored by characters who knock at midnight, in visits of imagination. I’m lucky that writing has found and rescued me. It became my lifeboat, an open door when all windows were closed, and showed me an existential purpose—melodramatic as it sounds, call it destiny.
To my parents, who I have spent most of 2020 with, thank you for respecting my dreams, giving me full autonomy with all your faith, and creating so much happiness in my life. Thank you for illuminating my moments of weakness, motivating me when I lose my way, and loving me in the best way possible. I love you more than words can say, Mommy and Daddy.
To God, thank you for teaching me the most crucial lessons in the gentlest of ways, for forgiving all the times I’ve disappointed you, for showing me a purpose that electrifies and makes me want to wake up every day, for all the opportunities to do you proud. When I see one set of footprints in the sand, I know You are carrying me.
Who knows what 2021 holds? Uncertainty is the only thing that’s certain. I don’t know when I’ll be back on Harvard campus, what will happen to my manuscript, where I’ll be next summer. But 2020 has fortified the bits of me that used to doubt incessantly, cushioned my blind optimism, and taught me that the only way to make things happen and reach seemingly big, impossible goals is to start small and persist every day.
I’m ready, 2021. Let me hurtle into you, like the bullet leaves the barrel.
A Quick Round of Favorites
(Note: some of the places/things mentioned were released before 2020. My only criteria is that 2020 was the year I first discovered them.)
Favorite Movie:Parasite Honorable Mention: Little Women
Feels like I watched Parasite ages ago but it was actually back in February before the world went off the rails. I remember the four of us in a packed AMC theater beside Boston Commons, all leaving the cinema amazed by the sheer artistry and incision we had just witnessed on screen—a brilliant story seamlessly stitched in a perfect choreography of acting, writing, and directing.
Sadly, I’ve watched very few movies this year. If you have must-watch recommendations, send them my way!!! : )
Favorite Album: Evermore, Taylor Swift Honorable Mention: Folklore, Taylor Swift (Read my review of the album here.)
Both are tributes to fantasy in a time when brutal reality demands our attention. Honestly, it’s a close call between E and F. Evermore wins in my heart because of a few standout tracks: “marjorie” (the Youtube lyric video features footage of Taylor’s opera-singing grandmother), “tolerate it” (I know I keep saying this but the lyrics in this bridge is her best one yet), “gold rush,” and “long story short.”
Fictional songwriting blends good storytelling with ear-catching composition. Who can do both the autobiographical AND the fictional better than Taylor? No one. My fictional favorites are the infidelity-driven crime anthem “no body, no crime” and the unlikely love story between two con artists in “cowboy like me.”
More wistful and adventurous and less sad, Evermore has chiseled away the parts of 2020 that we wish we could forget and carved out what can last.
Favorite Song: 《刻在你心底的名字》卢广仲
Wishing each of you a happy, healthy, and fruitful 2021! See you next year ❤️
Reading this in Istanbul has taught me something: read a novel about a city while you’re there. Your eyes will capture vibrant snapshots of a vanished past while gazing upon the present’s palimpsest. With stories, the city does not forget.
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.
Set in Istanbul in 1591 during the Ottoman empire, the novel begins with a murder mystery of one of the Sultan’s miniaturists (the illustrators of manuscripts). Call it a philosophical thriller, a romance, or an ode to art. There is a dizzying array of characters, a dazzling tapestry of ideas, and a language so vivid that all the paintings come to life in my head. Pamuk is a master of ekphrasis.
The rise of Europe and the decline of the Ottoman empire set the stage for a clash of civilizations. Front and center is the encounter between two different artistic meanings: the European realist style (pursuing the subjective gaze/individualizing perspective; i.e. as seen by the artist) and the Islamic tradition, which aspires to apprehend an objective truth (capturing an object’s essence, to be as close to Allah’s omniscient, timeless gaze as possible).
A must-read for any art-lover; a delight for anyone interested in the Ottoman empire; a revelation for any traveler who has been to Istanbul.
I read this on the plane, which says something: it’s readable enough on a red-eye and captivating enough to hold my attention over the in-flight movie catalogue.
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces… So begins this novel of a Captain in South Vietnam who sympathizes with and spies for the Communists in the North. Ironic in copious doses, especially when the Captain lands a job as “the technical consultant in charge of authenticity” for a Hollywood movie on the Vietnam War, the narrative takes all the tropes America has accumulated about Vietnam and exposes how absurd they are.
The Captain’s experience of settling in California as a refugee after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 is poignant and hilarious. He finds a job, for instance, doing academic “Oriental hocus pocus.” (HAHA!) The ending too, which I will not spoil, is graphic but powerful, reminding me of the passages of psychological torture in 1984.
The Sympathizer is a satire with heart. I like how it’s not scared of offending, not prone to translating itself (in the broadest sense possible), and dances acrobatically across continents, battle lines, and ideologies.
I’m a Rachel Cusk convert. The only author featured twice on this list is Ms Cusk and, I have to say, she has unlocked a way of writing that reveals the most startling observations without ever revealing anything about the narrator herself. Impassive, cool narration; spare, elegant style. Her writing is oh-so penetrating that I maniacally fold pages and draw lines.
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.
Does literature deal with climate change? I am intrigued by Ghosh’s argument, which I laid out in an earlier review:
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.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE BOOKS BY ONE OF MY FAVORITE WRITERS.
Worth a reread once a year. I don’t know what it is about this book that sets it apart from everything else I’ve read. Everyone should read it at least once in their lifetimes. Just look at the first line—embedded within it is the immensity of a whole world, a new kind of creativity, and a language of life:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
That’s it. Cyclical time, rememory, war, imminent death, family, and the familiar turned unfamiliar: ice. How does one “discover” ice?
It’s a crazy big novel. Critics have said that OHYS is a parable/allegory of the history of humanity. Professor Davíd Carrasco suggested that, perhaps, the author was simply trying to create a literary picture of the world of his childhood. Marquez hinted as much in his memoir, Living to Tell The Tale (reviewed here).
OHYS contains plagues, wars, a massacre, murders and incest, and ends with a windstorm that wipes the Buendía family from the face of earth. And yet, I finished reading it feeling immensely alive. Macondo feels contemporary, the apocalyptic begins from within, and the seed of solitude is the soul’s greatest magic and mystery.
Thank you, Gabo.
PS Hear Profé share how OHYS awakens the soul in lockdown in a six-minute New Yorkervideo.
Ta Nehisi-Coates writes in the vein of Baldwin, thematically and structurally. In a year of racial reckoning, both writers’ ability to look beyond their situation even as they are trapped within it illuminates the gaps in America—the gap, simply put, “between the world and me”: the difference within one’s own community, the condition of being a citizen without full social participation, the humiliation of not belonging.
What kind of solidarity is there out of these differences? Baldwin and Coates negotiate solidarity that comes from vulnerability, that is, to use one’s history and memory to interrogate the future instead of surrendering to total identification with generational trauma.
Baldwin’s writings are timeless; Coates’ book is more in the moment. Both are necessary reads in order to understand the United States as it is today.
What unconventional form! The novel is written like a screenplay and it reminds me of my screenwriting workshop days when I typed in Courier font, titled section headings with INT./EXT., and centralized dialogue. I love Yu’s formal experiment, which serves a dual purpose: he critiques the type-casting of Chinese by Hollywood while seamlessly executing the Shakespearean conceit, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Every character in the novel is an actor on set. Introducing Generic Asian Man, Background Oriental Male, Delivery Guy, Disgraced Son, Striving Immigrant, and the most coveted role of them all (the ceiling for any Asian American male), Kung Fu Guy.
It’s delicious to read, weird at times, ambitious in scope, and often funny with a pang.
At times, the novel might seem to skirt too easily over knottier ideas, going for style instead of substance, but the moments of gold redeem it.
You came here, your parents and their parents and their parents, and you always seem to have just arrived and yet never seem to have actually arrived. You’re here supposedly, in new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.
PS There is always something rather meta in Yu’s writing. The first novel I read by him, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (which I wrote a paper on in my sophomore year — check the ACADEMIC tab), has the same surreal, metaphysical vibe; except that, instead of actors, everyone in it is a time-traveler.
September: “外卖骑手，困在系统里” 赖祐萱，《人物》(Translation: Delivery Riders, Trapped in The System)
An essay that made me reflect on how I as a consumer treat delivery couriers and the ethics of the business models of food delivery giants in every continent (Grab, Uber, Meituan Dianping, etc.). In the capitalist juggernaut, a few sit atop billions while the rest race against time like uniformed worker ants. Money and profits lubricate the wheels. User demand determines the direction the wheel goes. Paid less than minimum wage are the couriers — the gig workers — who are the cogs, pushed here and there, struggling even to make a living.
In a pandemic, when people are confined to their homes, the quarantine economy all the more operates on the backs of these delivery couriers. Yet, the most exposed and essential ironically lack employment protections and sufficient financial compensation. They are whipped by the timer and manipulated by the algorithm (read the NYTimes’ article, “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons”); they are perpetually at the mercy of a bad rating, no tip, or confusing address instructions; they are a byte in the cloud of big data, treated less like humans with real-world safety constraints and more like a stray code to be behaviorally engineered into optimum.
And in this triangle of the user, the platform, and the courier, aren’t we all complicit?
This is the second book from Cusk I’ve read, which still deserves a FREAKING BRILLIANT. Few living writers make me feel this way. I remember thinking as I closed the covers, Honest to god, she might be one of the best writers of her generation.
In her writing lies a deep skepticism towards language, perception, the self, and reality itself. In an interview, Cusk once said, “I have lost all interest in having a self.” Creative death liberates. As the narrator renovates her flat, attempting to start life in a new place after divorce, so too does the novel upend any semblance of a story arc, tearing apart facades. Nothing really happens but much more is dismantled then rebuilt.
Cusk imbues life’s most ordinary details with lurid, laconic clarity. The excoriating is delivered with the lightness of a feather and with startling honesty.
It seemed so strange that these two extremes – the repellent and the idyllic, death and life – could stand only a few feet apart and remain mutually untransformed.
I asked him what he used his freedom for, since he defended it so assiduously, and he looked somewhat taken aback.
I said a lot of people spent their lives trying to make things last as a way of avoiding asking themselves whether those things were what they really wanted.
PS Currently reading the last book in the trilogy, Kudos.
Happy. An unabashedly happy novel. How rare it is to read a novel so optimistically romantic with fantastic prose. An affectionate, tragicomic tale of a gay writer, Arthur Less, who turns 50 on a globetrotting trip of self-reckoning (a picaresque dance from Mexico to Italy to Germany to Morocco to India to Japan). Crowding the page are lovers, writing woes, the befuddling rituals and occasional artifice of the publishing industry, and the evocative sensory detail with which Less fleshes out each place he goes to. Hovering in the background is the wedding of the love of his life, Freddy, to a man other than him. For a man about to turn fifty, is it too late to find true love?
In some ways, the novel is about age.
The city of youth, the country of age. But in between, where Less is living—that exurban existence?
But at its heart, Less is a love story with every shade of romance: first love, co-habitation, falling out of love, a string of casual lovers, foreign flings, fleeting flirtations, heartbreak, redemption, and somewhere in between, the sensation that “it feels like it could never be anyone else.” Our bumbling hero endlessly endears through these romantic mishaps and professional missteps:
He kisses—how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you.
I adore the novel’s wistfulness, moments of tenderness, and the innocence that beams through the absurdity and heartbreaks to deliver an ending that satisfies any romantic. All hail, love! 💙
Achingly gorgeous. The novel is swollen with longing amidst a decaying world, in the abandoned theater of war, in a shell-shocked Italian villa. Three men and one woman: a sapper, a spy-thief, a nurse, and a burnt man, who does not know his name. All damaged by the Second World War.
While the first section was a bit difficult to get into since it floated around like a sensual cloud, by the second section I could barely tear my eyes away from the page. The writing, with its rhythm and pauses, ellipses and elapses, is so rich that it compels the reader to labor over every word. It’s no easy read, but hell is it worth it.
What an experience to read this novel in the midst of a pandemic. Hana who reads to grieve, Kip who defuses bombs as a personal mission long after the war is over, Caravaggio who gets by on morphine after having two thumbs chopped off during the war, and the English patient whose love affair with a married woman is all he clings onto after a plane crash in the desert… All of them drift, in their separate loneliness; the war has done away with everything. Shut off from the rest of the world, they are knee-deep in memory, in unfulfilled longings, in search of an anchor, a meaning, some way to get by.
The war obliterates intimacy. So has the pandemic, in a way. We are left untethered, alone, yearning. A world with a new interface, needing another lexicon of behavior, begging to be reinterpreted. What then? In the ruins of the villa, in the aftermath of detonations, there is tentative love, the removal of the clothing of nations, the building of a small utopia. And there is also immense loss.
We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.
Wars, tribes, borders, languages. There is no moment like right now to remind us that we are communal histories.
Spent a couple of days listening to writers and journalists speak virtually on topics ranging from billenials (billionaire millennials) to translating oneself to China’s navigation of collective historical traumas. I’ve jotted down some notes. ⬇️
First off, THANK YOU to the folks at Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF) for gifting me with a media pass to their virtual festival ❤️
In its 20th edition, the HKILF took place from November 5th-15th, with over 53 online events — some are free; some are ticketed; all are available for replay until 30th November on Crowdcast. I’ve put the ticketing information at the bottom of the post for interested folks. 🔥
Debut Novels on Contemporary Asia
Lately, I’ve been reading lots of aged, dusty books from last century. But, as always, nothing gets me more excited than contemporary fiction that has its finger on the pulse of the moment.
Delighted to discover several new novelists writing about the millennial condition, urban alienation in Asian megatropolises, and Chinese characters in forgotten histories of the West. I’m adding them to my to-be-read pile (and hopefully, they will wind up On My Desk).
Spotlighting a few titles that I’ve culled from HKILF (links go to Goodreads):
Braised Pork, An Yu — a housewife wakes up to find her husband dead in the bathtub; a surrealist tale of nocturnal Beijing and the high plains of Tibet. 🛀
If I Had Your Face, Frances Cha — four women in Seoul, grappling with strict social hierarchies, the obsession with beauty, K-pop fan mania, and the secretive career in room salons catering to wealthy men. 💋
How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pam Zhang (Booker Prize longlisted!) — two Chinese-American siblings trying to survive on the wild west frontier in the twilight of the American gold rush. 🔨
I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.
Nabokov, Beckett, Conrad, and Lahiri: writers who move out of one language and into another. Like a linguistic pilgrimage, writing in a foreign tongue allows for the writer to demolish then rebuild herself, and to grapple intimately with language as fundamentally an approximation (a word which one of my Harvard professors loves to use).
I’ve always been intrigued by how Jhumpa Lahiri actively made the choice to write in Italian, an acquired language, in a deliberate shedding of the mantle of English. Hers is a voluntary exile. In her 2015 New Yorker essay (written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein), “Teach Yourself Italian,” Jhumpa chronicles various stages of her literary metamorphosis from exile to renunciation to radical transition.
All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin.
Listening to her speak, I am struck by her perpetual sense of exile, which I have felt at various points in my life. “I have never been in a place where I feel completely accepted,” Jhumpa says. Even in English, there is a “consuming struggle.” So is my relationship with English and Mandarin — both are my mother tongues, yet so often I am afflicted by a sense of incompletion and failure when writing and speaking them.
Like Jhumpa, I grew up as a child of immigrants. The hybridity of space — what she calls an orientation towards another place that you cannot physically inhabit — might have been the first seed of curiosity that drove me to write. Literature is an oblique mirror for our selves; and in the inherent instability of language, we refract our own fluid identities.
I don’t know if I can ever abandon my native languages, in search of a metamorphosis like Jhumpa. I doubt it. But her relationship towards language is one that I yearn for, a return to the state of a child, to a passionate primitivity. And her celebration of language as porous is a startling reminder for our times. (Reminds me partly of what Zadie Smith said about language.)
The height of civilization, Jhumpa points out, has always been the celebration of other languages; the circulation of other cultures challenges any monolithic vision. Conversely, disturbingly, movements that seek to preserve the purity of a language and of the associated identity run against the very instinct of civilization. The multiplicity of identities, mediated through language (and its mixtures), is central to the human condition. The politics of closure is, in this vein, regressive.
The Politics of Memory
Love this session by two historians, Julia Lovell and Rana Mitter (who I especially admire).
Both comment on cultural memory in China and how China tells a story of its histories to itself and to the world. Lovell talks about the omission of Maoism from China’s modern narrative post-Reform and Opening Up in the 80s (with Mao’s notable absence from the 2008 Beijing Olympics showcase of China’s historical milestones) until 2011. Bo Xilai’s rise capitalized on nostalgia towards Mao; the “red revival” he espoused bolstered his political career…until it crashed. After Bo’s subsequent downfall, the Xi regime too reinstated Maoist ideals as the fulcrum of its anti-corruption campaign — a selective, partial official sponsoring of Maoism.
Mitter too observes that the politics of memory is on vivid display this year. 2020 happens to be both the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, called the “War to Resist America and Aid Korea” (抗美援朝战争) within China. While both anniversaries were within two months of each other, there was a significant shift in national discourse and official coverage. The commemoration of the end of WWII in China not only emphasized the nation’s critical role in resisting the Japanese (中国人民抗日战争) but also China’s role in the founding of the United Nations—an emphatic call for multilateralism, strengthening international institutions, and global cooperation. Official discourse lambasted the “blame game” by some countries and the clamor for “decoupling.” Yet, just two months later, as China marked the 70th anniversary of its entry into the Korean War, Xi invoked the Maoist spirit of anti-imperialist struggle, with undertones of anti-American sentiment. He quoted Mao outright: “Let the world know that ‘the people of China are now organised, and are not to be trifled with.'” Oh, the instrumentality of history.
Memory is much alive and kicking. And it mutates. Several times, Mitter brings up China’s recent blockbuster war movie, The Eight Hundred 《八佰》, which tells the story of the Second Sino-Japanese War (specifically the 1937 Battle of Shanghai) but from the perspective of the Kuomintang soldiers (instead of the usual Communist Party point-of-view). Such a movie, he argues, would have been unimaginable in just three decades ago. It is now the world’s highest-grossing film of 2020.
The range of thinkers, wordsmiths, and topics that HKILF has brought together is incredible. Apart from the few I highlighted above, there were numerous other virtual sessions that I so greatly enjoyed, including Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan‘s juicy, hilarious event (what a romp through his entire career!) with spot-on moderating from Lee Williamson (I couldn’t stop laughing) and David Frum‘s brilliantly incisive, candid session on rebuilding American democracy post-Trumpocalypse.
Get your Festival Pass to gain access to ALL 53 online events here, available for replay until 30th November 2020. Alternatively, email firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase a ticket to any 3 online events for the price of 2.
What grounds and inspires me is that, even in these unprecedented times, we recognize and celebrate the power of the written word and the value of stories. Keep reading, keep listening 🌱
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.