Hong Kong International Literary Festival: Asian debut voices, Jhumpa Lahiri on linguistic exile, the politics of memory

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. 🔥

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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. 🔨
  • Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China, Karoline Kan — a memoir by a former New York Times reporter on growing up in China since Tiananmen. 🐼

Hear these debut writers talk about their writings in the following FREE online events:

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Jhumpa Lahiri: I Belong to Italian

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.

I agree.

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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.

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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 info@festival.org.hk 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 🌱

xo,

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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

[Writing] Snippets from old drafts

中秋快乐~ Happy Mid-Autumn, my loves! 🌕🥮🎑

中秋快乐2020

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Ok, now some writing ramblings:

My current novel draft is titled V6. The word count clocks in at slightly over 52,000.

Idol V6 word count

Today, I went back to read V2 and V3—it kind of shocked me how they present a drastically different novel altogether from my current draft (where are the genetic similarities?!) and they will probably never see the light of day. They will float in the Google cloud, untethered, the DNA lineage from which the current baby descends. 🧬👶🏻

So here are some random excerpts from these GDoc relics, for your amusement (and my own haha). 

[V2] SoulCycle in augmented reality? 🚴‍♀️

“One kilometer left, questors!”

A drop of sweat fall into January’s left eye. Her smartlenses watered, the wasteland blurring.

“Eight hundred!” 

Her thigh muscles ached. She was cycling uphill in a Mad Max-like wasteland. The group was in the last stretch of the high-speed chase. The sun overhead was blindingly white, but there was no heat. As her feet pumped the pedals, the vehicle surged forward on a yellow, dusty road that disappeared into the horizon where the silhouette of a fortress awaited. All around her stretched an endless blanket of sand. 

[…]

“You’ve crossed the Wasteland, questors! The quest never ends! See you all next session!”

The wasteland receded. Confetti showered on her, the flakes disappearing before they touched her sweaty skin. Words began floating before her. 

Our arable lands are becoming deserts. Every dollar you spent at True Quest is matched by ByteCent to reforest our lost greenery.

As the electronic music prelude to the True Quest theme song began, January tapped her left cuff to switch off the AR filters and the room reverted to its clean lines and simple furnishings: a bunch of stationary bicycles in a darkly-lit studio, with glow-in-the-dark bonsai trees. Other questors—all slim, panting, and of various skin tones—were now stretching, gulping their customized Soulwaters, or softly gossiping in circles.

January grabbed her Soulwater from the cup holder. Today’s flavor tasted saccharinely sweet. Usually, she would have hated it, but the water matched her mood. January looked around the dim studio, thronging with sleek shadows—all the women with their ready-wearables and athleisure couture from the New York Fashion Week’s S/S collections, sweat-resistant au naturel makeup, and the modest discreetness of their minimalist aesthetic. On the outside, January melted into these shadows, but her thoughts couldn’t lie. The appearance was easy: sneaker-heels, photosynthetic GgG (Gucci goes Green) shirts, and a flash of Tiffany silver or Cartier gold to coyly convey sustainable luxury and ethical living. How long had it taken for her to get here? To this lifestyle of ‘enlightened entitlement,’ where wellness was a status symbol, productivity was a precept, and everything was done mindfully—shopping, eating, sleeping, parenting, learning, working, and working out.

[V2] Girl meets boy for the first time after he gets into car accident. (There’s no longer a car accident in V6, phew.) 🥺

He was pale-faced, half of his face bandaged, engulfed in blankets, his shoulders still straight. A wisp of glamor still lingered—barely there, like dust that glints when the angle is right—on the upward tilt of his left eye, in the pinkish-red of the rims, on the feather tip of those heavy lashes. 

She had prepared herself for scrawny or scrunched up, skeletal or sickly, but instead, he looked sober. Somehow, the spare setting purged every trace of boyishness from his face.

Under the fluorescent lighting, motionless on the hospital bed, he didn’t look quite human—a half-mummified mannequin, or an uncanny sculpture, or a new-age Frankensteinian invention just off the surgical table, not yet ready to be unravelled.

I’m like a cold-eyed observer, she thought, gazing upon a painting. 

[V3] In this version, everything becomes first-person. A world with holographic apps. 🌟

Download GEMINI UNIVERSE? The window prompted.

Staring at the “Play trailer” option, my index finger tapped the air. 

Full Immersive or Augmented? The window asked. I doubled tapped the former. 

G—and it could only be him—appeared, three feet away from me. Loose white t-shirt and black jeans. No shoes. 

“Hello,” the hologram said, eyes crinkling, “welcome to my world.”

My reading capsule was still bright, for optimal reading, but his hologram had an otherworldly quality, standing under a spotlight as though on a dark stage. Suddenly: a couple beats of crashing drums. A pulsing bass. The light around him rippled. 

“Come on over,” he said, beckoning with a raise of his brows. The VR effects kicked in and the capsule faded away. I was now in a dome, surrounded by galaxies of light sticks. At the heart of the planetarium stood G, now in an all-black ensemble with a jacket that flashed trending profile avatars of fans. He was softly crooning in a vertiginous ring of light. The tune was melancholic, but his voice was surprisingly good, almost familiar. I had probably heard it somewhere, on one of my friends’ livestreams or 360-statuses.  

“Experience my concerts wherever, whenever.” 

The scene rippled and now we were in a bedroom. Oh! I was in someone else’s body, looking at the world through his eyes. G’s! He/I was waking up, brushing his teeth, walking into a—I’ll never forget this moment—jaw-droppingly expansive closet that was bigger than my bedroom. I could only catch a glimpse because the shots were spliced rapidly. The next moment, I saw him picking a recipe from his food printer and tapping a spoon against the marble countertop. And then it was him on a plane, waving to screaming fans at arrival, ducking into a vehicle. His hand comes up towards his face and blocks the lenses. Blackness.

“Experience how I live,” said his voice. 

“And have me in your universe.”

A few functional scenes dissolved in and out. Easy purchase or bookmarking of any outfit or look by tapping on G and adding the item to the cart or mirror. Augmented meals. Exclusive concert sets in the living room. Giving my smart assistant the Aural x G premium update. 

“See you there.”

The darkness lifted gradually and I was back in my capsule. 

I was still reeling from the quick final scene—essentially, my smart assistant could take on his hologram likeness and speak in his voice. What would having G so close be like? Could I even name him something else? Or was the whole point to have him—singularly, authentically—in my world?

The trailer was not entirely the life story I was expecting. It was invasively intimate, thrillingly voyeuristic, more about tying my world with his. I could already envision how gruelling it was going to be, wading through all the information on his life when every brush of the teeth was documented.

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Dear reader, always happy to hear your thoughts and ideas on the future of entertainment, love, and inequality!!! x

Onwards with V6 in October!!! 💪💪💪

但愿人长久,千里共婵娟 🙏💛

祝合家圆圆满满,一生花好月圆~

Have many yummy mooncakes,