Thanksgiving with Books and BBQ

Professor David Carrasco

With Profé Carrasco (from Hum 10)!

What’s in your magnitude?

What’s in your library?

What’s in your details?

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

This break, I’ve been on campus: empty cobblestone streets, a handful of lit windows in the wintry night, closed restaurants and libraries, vacant laundry machines — solitary, quiet, and kind of really nice.

I’ve been reading and reading and writing and writing. I’ve been to Widener more in the past two weeks than I have in my entire college career. Belated discoveries, two years late to be exact:

  1. Harvard libraries have no borrowing limit.
  2. Most books can be automatically renewed, up to five times.
  3. Each loan has the duration of an entire semester.

A heap of 13 library books on my desk.

What’s on my mind: Arjun Appadurai’s postnational imaginary, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, globalization theory, nationalisms (trojan nationalism, spectral sovereignty, long-distance nationalism…), cosmopolitanisms (plural!), migration statistics (the world on the move; a future where migration would be the norm), and my novel-in-progress which I’ve snubbed for the past few days (urgh).

Thanksgiving Day is in the details: 7 plates of beef, 238 new photos on the camera roll, the smell of barbeque on my scarf and my hair, tongs and chopsticks poking sizzling ribs and lean cuts on the charcoal grill, 3 types of matcha desserts, flushed faces under a red lantern, cool noir outside the timber panes, belting out Mamma Mia on ghostly pavements, and continuing the freshman tradition with Marwah. ❤️

marwah and selina 1

Thanksgiving. I think of things ending and starting. A semester that flies by too fast. We can’t even catch five days and cup them in our hands long enough to count them. I blink and everything is over. Two days later, Cambridge will snow. Two days after, classes will end.

The lantern burns bright. The glow accompanies me into the dark night. Thank you, you, and you for the rosy warmth and the guiding light.

And thank you for reading ✨

Selina thanksgiving

Lots of love,

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Conversation Sparks: Life, you’re the dancing queen

We tend to romanticize the past. For a while, I complained to friends that I was feeling the belated onslaught of the Sophomore Slump — call it the Junior Jetlag. Every seven hours, I would reminisce about my idyllic, fulfilling sophomore fall. But then, I went to read what I wrote one year ago — my pillow book: the pathos of November. MAJOR THEMES (tl;dr): Bad days, paper extensions, and all-out clumsiness. Turns out, last year this time, I fell down an entire flight of stairs in Quincy. HAHA. I must have edited out the memory from my head.

Ever since the (angsty) post about October unraveling, the universe has been sending me sparks left, right, and center. Grateful to everyone who has engaged in long conversations and hearty eating with me over the past two weeks.

ME: Life, you seem meaningless. I feel hollow.

LIFE: Catch this! Try this! Hear this! WATCH ME JIVE!

ME: (speechless and incapable of mustering a further complaint)

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LIFE.

Three Life Paths Appeared Yesterday

Over Louisiana Gumbo at Legal Sea Foods, Professor Graham Allison suggested to me Singapore’s unique position as a hub for independent analysis/opinions during this chapter of U.S.-China relations when the global discourse is increasingly polarized.

In a dusky café by a church, I chatted with a Singapore writer about MFA programs, novel-writing, and how we don’t fact-check public discourse in Singapore. She writes beautifully and two years ago, her incredibly honest post on her scholarship experience— Once Bonded — inspired me not to take the PSC scholarship. If you’re at that crossroads, this is a must-read. If you want to be a full-time writer, she said, be ready to accept that you will be poor.

The day ended with an absolute intellectual blast — a three-hour conversation with an ex-TF (teaching fellow). I came away with ten book/thinker recommendations after a wide-ranging, spontaneous discussion on intellectual history, internet sub-culture, Chinese politics, post-colonialism, speculative history, family diaspora, the culture of academia, etc. You are a good fit for grad school, my TF said, but every system has its own expectations. Don’t romanticize it and think you will have a lot of free time to write creatively.  

Dining Hall Pep Talk

“Why are you so hung up over a single bad grade? You study power and politics and systems and society. Can’t you see that you care so much about a grade because of conditioning from young? Getting an A used to matter, but does it matter that much now?” Marwah drills me.

She eats a piece of bread and I eat a slice of apple pie.

“Procrastination is not a waste of time. Total energy remains constant. When your kinetic energy goes down, the energy is still there. Except that now it’s potential energy,” she continues, voice crisp like a commander.

I nod, mesmerized by her oration.

She eats another piece of bread, slathering cream cheese. This time, I choose blueberry pie instead.

She tests me between chews, “You sit in bed looking at your phone for three hours versus you meditate by the river for three hours — which one makes you feel more guilty? Exactly, when you’re using your phone. We are indoctrinated by the older generation, who are wary of technology.”

A pause.

I said, “On a side note: when I’m with you, I always feel hungry.”

Selina Xu and Marwah Sabrah

Three days later, we eat 50000 Halloween candies/cheese cubes/digestive biscuits.

Global Consciousness

“I like that you situate part of it in China,” Professor Maya Jasanoff tells me over Faculty Dinner.

We have stories with a global consciousness about South Asia or Africa. Think: writers like Mohsin Hamid or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But, most writers of Chinese heritage writing the anglophone novel have tended to deal with identity, traditions, and generational trauma. (A generalization, perhaps. Feel free to suggest titles that prove otherwise — would love to read!!)

“Perhaps, you could write that,” she says.

I clasp my hands and silently murmur a quick prayer there and then.

“That’s the aspiration,” I say.

Talking to someone who sees the world humanistically is powerful and inspires faith — faith in our capacity to see outside the bubbles of our identities and the limits of the present; to think intelligently and independently beyond echo chambers, demagoguery, and establishment views; to recognize inherent within our own subjectivity, our ignorance; to empathize, imagine, and understand. Professor Jasanoff makes me want to be ardently, unwaveringly a humanist.

Maya Jasanoff Faculty Dinner

A Dose of Tough Love

On our weekly Friday lunches at Leverett, I whisper furiously to Shi Le, “I need to hear harsh things. I need your tough love.”

“First,” she said, “you cannot take a second cookie.”

After I visibly wither under her gaze, she calmly continues, “Secondly, you need to stop getting out of bed at noon. Since you need to hear this, listen: THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

“If life unravels, ask yourself what you have control over. You can control when you go to eat and when you sleep. So do that. Structure.”

Selina Xu and Wong Shi Le

Tracing the Dots

For two nights, Xin Min sleeps in my room.

On the last day, as she zips her luggage and I shuffle songs, she tells me, “I’ll leave at 10pm.”

We talk about the five things we want in life. We talk about our threshold of fulfillment.

It’s past 10. Her luggage is ready by the door.

“Ok, I’ll leave at 11pm.”

We talk about how to hold ourselves accountable, how to test aspirations.

She sits cross-legged on the floor and throws me suggestions, “You should post more often on your blog. Put each complete scene on your blog. Build Insta.”

The room is cold and we are quiet. Our conversation is meandering, our voices soft. My hands are numb but I’m thinking, How rare it is that someone will sit down with you and interrogate your dream. Brainstorm your life like it’s theirs, just for a moment. 

“That’s what I admire about the liberal arts education, you have ideas all over the place,” Xin Min says, “like dots.”

“Like dots?”

“You have many dots. The problem then is how to trace them and draw them into a constellation.”

We leave the room at 12:24am.

Selina Xu and Lee Xin Min

On Halloween

In the airy atrium at the Harvard Art Museums, my creative writing professor Claire Messud paints for us the world of a writer over lunch — there are expectations (perhaps, gendered), reviews, time/sacrifices/choices when one has children, and how 99% of writers can’t pay the bills with writing. But, still, we write on. A girl talked about how she quit her job and started bartending so she could have more time to write.

As I poked at my salad, I wondered about this weird instinct that compels us to create and live in words. We inscribe our place in the world with a frantic pen. We anchor our life in stories and cup them in our hands, hoping that strangers will read. We surrender to one vivid and continuous dream after another.

If writing is easy, anyone can be a writer. I think it’s a holy life; a moonkissed mind, a conduit — by choice.

***

If you’ve read till here, thank you for indulging me. x

Sending you sparks! ✨✨✨

Lots of love,

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Confession: “I Was Born A Writer”

I’m not sure that Morocco or France are my countries… No, my country is language. My country is a library.

Have you ever felt utterly exhilarated just listening to someone talk?

I was in a conference room somewhere in the basement of the Center for European Studies. Leila Slimani was in conversation with my Advanced Fiction Professor Claire Messud.

Every single word that tumbled out of her mouth — matter-of-factly, resolutely, spontaneously — was setting off fireworks in my head. 

I was born a writer, she said. I always knew I was going to be a writer. 

When hard things happened in her life, even before she started writing her first novel, a part of her was always thinking, Now I’m getting closer to my destiny. Every moment, life was giving her material that could be digested and transformed into literature. So you’ve survived, now you can write. Everything is literature. 

When she said the word “destiny,” I was falling through time and space. When I was in first grade, the school project for the holidays was to fill out a 10-page activity sheet on our life ambitions. (Think: when I grow up, I want to be x.) In 2005, my dad was a computer scientist with entrepreneurial zeal and my mom was a homemaker armed with an engineering degree and childhood education diploma. I wonder how I knew even then the destiny of those letters as my seven-year-old self painstakingly penciled the word: w-r-i-t-e-r. My most primordial instinct, before socialization.

Then I lost that sense of destiny.

Sitting there, hearing Leila talk about how we reach the unreachable and the unspeakable with respect and tenderness in art, about the sheer freedom of writing (we can write about anyone from the inside with intimacy, even monsters or people we hate), about how writing is never to judge but simply to reveal how a person is like, gave me vertigo.

I don’t know if I have talent but all I know is that if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a bitter, angry, jealous person, Leila said in response to my question. In writing, I accomplished myself.

She was the silhouette of a 37-year-old I hoped to grow into, what I had let fall in the march of years, and what I so desperately wanted to believe, believe, believe. And to remember.

I was born to be a writer. I am going to be a writer.

Even if some days I can’t write, even when I’ve never written anything close to a novel, life has an arc, a constellation of dots, a thrumming of strings ONLY IF WE CHOOSE TO SEE. This vision, undercut by my own doubts, has been postponed, danced around in conversations, swept aside and buried when it wasn’t achieved in 21 years of existence.

But these years should neither be proof of my inadequacies nor a tractor demolishing intuition. The life I’m living through and the inner life that’s ever-shifting within me are all pieces and strands that will eventually crystallize. Every moment I’m just a step closer. 

Thank you, Leila, for the sheer imprint of your burning-hot conviction. I’ve never met someone this serenely confident in the meaning of their existence. You’ve delivered my sense of destiny back to me.

Leila Slimani Harvard.jpeg

Here’s an article about Leila from The New Yorker: The Killer-Nanny Novel that Conquered France.

Here’s a short story by Leila, The Confession. Trigger warning: it’s from the perspective of a rapist.

***

Lots of love on a revelatory day,

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My Junior Fall Harvard Classes!

Vietnam Ha Long Bay Cruise

Hello folks, we’re entering week 4 of Junior Fall?! Summer feels like yesterday — banana shirt days in flip-flops, lounging in the shade reading novels, and smearing the ring of condensation on my fingers when sipping iced tea/milk green tea with golden bubbles/pineapple smoothies (happy sigh).

My life has never been this routine and packed — classes, readings, dining hall meals, exercise. I’ve picked up running again. Weaving between Georgian buildings in the darkness, feet pounding on empty pavements, a flash of headlights, the smell of wet grass, a sliver of the night chilly between my slick fingers, my figure solitary between marble sky and solid earth.

For the first time ever, I’m taking 6 courses in a semester (one of them being an Independent Study) but still, my schedule looks deceptively doable — continuing my streak of no classes on Fridays! But, quite honestly, I’ve been feeling like I’m on a knife-edge. One misstep or a brief surrender to procrastination, and the wheel throws me off. Keeping my balance precipitously on the tightrope of discipline. It’s hard to finish all the readings but I really do want to.

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IGA 211/GOV 1796: Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press — Graham Allison, David Sanger, Derek Reveron

Piqued by a summer immersed in international news at CNN, I decided to take my first Government class at Harvard (eons ago in high school, I once took Geopolitics at NUS).  It’s held at the Harvard Kennedy School, with a small class that features a mix of Kennedy school students, National Security Fellows, cross-registered students, and undergrads.

The class is memo-style with national security cases on likely real-world scenarios ranging from North Korea’s ICBM tests to Chinese intervention in Hong Kong to Homeland Security and immigration to cybersecurity. The three professors offer different views/approaches to each of these security challenges. One fascinating dimension is the press: How does domestic press coverage inform/intrude national security decision making? How does social media (Twitter, for example) transform national security strategies? (Think: Trump.)

Fun fact: PM Lee Hsien Loong was a former student in this course (yes, it has been running for a long, long while).

HIST 14V: Walter Benjamin — Peter Gordon

My first History department course. 😳 (This is quite the semester of experimentation.) I still feel slightly out of my element due to the European focus of the class. Sorel on the myth of the general strike? Scholem on Jewish mysticism? Postlapsarian wha—?

But, I’m persisting. We are about to read Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel this coming week and it’s apparently one of his most difficult pieces of writing. Let’s see how that goes.

Why am I taking this class? I’ve previously encountered Walter Benjamin only in snippets, sporadically in different courses across departments – for instance, “The Task of the Translator” in my freshman seminar on the creative work of translating, and his writings on the flâneur in Global Fictions. My academic interests lie in cosmopolitanism and the diasporic individual in the age of globalization/postcolonialism as well as at the intersections of phenomenology and literary subjectivity. Time to trace the roots of these ideas to one of the fathers of cosmopolitan thought.

If you’d like to give Benjamin a shot, here’s a short essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.”

ENGLISH CAFR: Advanced Fiction Workshop: Writing this Present Life — Claire Messud

My 4th creative writing workshop at Harvard. So excited! The first workshop I’ve ever been to in my life was Intro to Fiction with Claire, in the fall of 2017. I still remember when I was first rejected for the class and then miraculously got off the waitlist (Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)) — life works in mercurial, magical ways. Somehow, I’m just glad that I’m still writing, frantically, confessionally, unabatingly. 

That Freshman Fall workshop ended up completely altering my college trajectory (and aspirations). While before I had jotted down snippets in notebooks or started too many novel drafts left unfinished, I wrote my first full-fledged short story (posted as a Valentine’s Day short story on the blog: April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love) in that course. It only sank in then that ‘writer’ had contours that I could touch and maybe eventually fill.

This semester, I’m working a projected longer work. It’s a speculative fiction piece about celebrity worship, mass culture, and the future of media in 2035. If you have thoughts on this or some wild ideas, or if you just want to orate about a futuristic world, GRAB A MEAL WITH ME AND TALK TO YOUR HEART’S CONTENT.

HIST-LIT 98: History & Literature Junior Tutorial — Catherine Nguyen

There’s just three of us and our tutor. We create our own syllabus collectively — each of us decides the readings/topics for around 3 weeks. I like the autonomy but the fluidity of structure is quite unprecedented. For my weeks, I’m thinking of these topics:

  • Language and Exile (Nabokov? Pnin? Imaginary Homelands?)
  • Migration and Intimacies (Wong Kar-wai? Eileen Chang?)
  • Refugees, Displacement, and Transnational Futures (Exit West? Viet Thanh Nguyen?)

What would you study, if given the opportunity to craft your own syllabus?

PHIL 97: Philosophy Sophomore Tutorial — Rachael Goodyer

We are studying the concept of dignity through its historical foundations (four influential traditions include: the Stoic, the Catholic, the Kantian and the 19th century German), dignity’s relationship to human rights, and dignity’s discussion in medical ethics. Dignity is embedded in political and legal discourse, so the readings cover many genres (legal cases, philosophical texts, literature, political declarations/treatises).

Is dignity a ‘squishy, subjective notion’ as Steve Pinker calls it? Or is it essential to the conception of human rights? Ah, how hard it is to define dignity; how omnipresent it is in our lives.

Independent Study — David Wang

I’m tentatively working on a love story set in future Hong Kong in a time of crisis and collapse, in the vein of ‘Love in A Fallen City’ (倾城之恋).

After a long, wonderful conversation with Professor Wang about speculative realism, the Hong Kong protests (the city is a crucible of capitalist & socialist forces), post-humanism, and the biopolitics of the state, I’m brimming over with possibilities and the daunting thought that every story — no matter how outrageous — needs to be grounded in the conservative/ordinary/minute human concerns. The political cannot be brushed aside.

***

Read about my classes in previous semesters:

My Sophomore Spring Harvard Classes + Some Little Things

My Sophomore Fall Harvard Classes! (ft. Life)

My Freshman Spring Harvard Classes

Lots of love,

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Interning at CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS

Selina Xu Fareed Zakaria

Working at CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS has been one of the most interesting internship experiences I’ve had. It has exposed me to the specifics of producing a show for air, what it’s like to work at a place like CNN, and the excitement of dealing with ideas, international news, and incisive analysis on a day-to-day basis. Never in my life have I been this in tune with what’s happening around the world — it’s like keeping one’s finger on the pulse of geopolitics. As an intern, I have had the chance to pitch ideas, meet guests, and contribute to the technical side of the show — finding images and footage, time-coding, fact-checking, etc. The job has pushed me into unfamiliar and exciting terrains: I’ve written a book report on cybersecurity, worked on a live show featuring a guest on the streets from the Hong Kong protests, watched Fareed interview Nancy Pelosi at the Council on Foreign Relations, and pulled visual elements for topics ranging from the recent U.S. gun violence to G20 summit to the 1960s civil rights sit-in movement to the LGBTQ Pride Month.

It’s refreshing to examine news in a weekly format instead of the daily news cycle. More than highlighting headlines, GPS has been about analyzing news in an intelligent manner with multiple perspectives. The close-knit team provides a collaborative and open setting, where ideas from interns do matter. Fareed has also taken the time to have conversations with us. In short, this internship has utterly transformed the way I engage with international news.

If you’re someone at all interested in what lies at the intersection of international relations, media, journalism, or even storytelling at large, I highly recommend applying for this dynamic, interdisciplinary experience!!! 🌟💪💪

***

Q: So… why did you want to apply for this internship?

CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS is one of the leading foreign affairs shows in the world — what better place to learn about global affairs and how to write news/tell stories? The nature of the show — a weekly format that provides deep dives — brings together experts, cultural observers, world leaders, and other titans of their fields to think, analyze, and debate perspectives across the spectrum. It’s the antithesis to all that is disappointing in media today, and all the more inspiring because of its scope, ambition, depth, commitment to intellectual rigor, and adherence to facts (in a day and age when those don’t seem to matter as much to some audiences).

Click the image below to listen to the weekly podcast. 🌎💡🎥 

Fareed Zakaria GPS Podcast

Q: What have you focused on in your internship?

International relations – the shifting tides of global geopolitics, the unlikely stories in different parts of the globe, how to tell news and explore ideas visually with an eye on the facts (often the numbers tell the true story), U.S.-China relations which are close to my heart and which will dominate the changing world order for the decades ahead.

Q: What has been the most exciting part of the job?

Hearing from the guests & having my pitches picked!

Guests include political figures — for instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the first female President of Ireland Mary Robinson — as well as political experts/commentators like Ian Bremmer, Niall Ferguson, Thomas Friedman, and Zanny Minton Beddoes.

But nothing beats having your pitches picked and seeing them transformed for air, uttered by Fareed on screen, and produced to be shown on TV in millions of households around the world. My pitches for QOTW (Question of the Week) on robots, the WTO, and Brexit were chosen — I now know a bunch of random IR trivia, come hit me up! 😉 Check out the podcasts to catch these brief segments! 🥰🍀✨

Q: What have you learned/got out of your internship experience this summer?

I got a better sense of the global landscape beyond major headlines and the relentless chug of the news cycle. This internship has been eye-opening in the way it compellingly delved into key recurring international stories (e.g. the U.S.-China trade war, Brexit, Iran) but also investigated a transnational perspective on issues (white extremism as a global phenomenon, how U.S. gun legislation compares to other countries, conceptualizing climate justice across developed/developing but also gender lines etc.).

Q: Would you recommend the Director’s Internship program to another Harvard student?

Of course! The opportunities available are amazing — without the IOP (Institute of Politics), it would have likely been a lot harder to secure an offer in public service amid a huge pool of applicants. Many public service internships are also either unpaid or minimum wage, so the generous stipend that the Director’s Internship offers really makes a huge difference. With a fully-funded summer, and an incredibly helpful staff assisting your queries, providing guidance, and building community, the program is a fantastic way to delve into public service whole-heartedly.

Fareed Zakaria GPS CNN Intern