Movie Review: Blind Mountain《盲山》(2007)

There are two endings to Blind Mountain. In the censored Mainland Chinese version, the police comes and rescues the female protagonist from her rural prison. In the version for international release, which is the one I watched, the girl grabs the knife closest to her and, in a climactic eruption of violence, stabs her “husband” who is stopping her from leaving. Then, the screen fades to black.

From leaving what? A marriage that she was sold into, an entire village that is complicit in the trafficking of women, the stifling despair of being surrounded by other women—some held captive for years and resigned to their fates—who persuade her that “All women go through this”, the insular traditions of female infanticide and a family that treats her like a reproductive vessel, much like what they expect of the piglets in their shed.

This is the well-known reality within China: the trafficking of hundreds of thousands of women, sold to rural bachelors as brides. It’s a decades-old crisis that has been dissected by sociologists and then largely ignored by society until occasional sensational headlines surface (take, for instance, the story of “model teacher” Gao Yanmin). Much has been said, little has been done, much less is understood. Why are hundreds of thousands of these tragedies enacted across the country, year after year, with negligible change?

As one of the rare few Chinese movies about the endemic problem of trafficking, Blind Mountain cuts through the noise, social analysis and propaganda to brutally present the ordeal of the female protagonist. On a search for employment, college graduate Bai Xuemei is duped and abducted to the rural mountains, where she is sold to a farming family. A purchased womb for “husband” Degui, a middle-aged illiterate farmer, Xuemei resists and is raped, beaten and impregnated. Again and again, she attempts to run away. Each time, she has to scale the silent mountains, tearing through the eerily atmospheric beauty of unspoiled nature. Every attempt—nail-bitingly painful to watch—comes up against the cruelty, apathy and tacit surveillance of the villagers, many of whom have bought wives themselves and collude with one another to prevent any woman from escaping. As the story races to its explosive conclusion, the movie puts an entire society—not just a family or a village—on trial.

So matter-of-fact and unembellished is the narration (with many takes masterfully shot with a hand-held camera) that vile moments arrive without any spectacle. Despite the raw, economical style, the emotions run so thick and palpable that I had to pause the movie twice just to breathe. Stripped to the narrative bone, this movie horrifies and haunts more than any slasher pic.

The idea of “blindness” runs throughout Director Li Yang’s trilogy: Blind Shaft (2003), Blind Mountain (2007) and Blind Way (2017). Each respectively deals with the plight of laborers in illegal mines, women sold into the mountains as wives and disabled children prostituted in illicit begging rings. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean these crimes don’t exist. They are happening right around us.

Who is blind here? It’s easy to say the villagers due to their ignorance and atrocities. But so is the law—blind in its (lack of) enforcement, which persecutes only the traffickers and not the buyers. In one scene, a provincial official visits the village and is pleased to see a pastoral idyll; all the trafficked women have been hidden, obscured from the picturesque. I wonder if this is blindness by choice. What the state desires is not the gritty truth but a manufactured mirage of prosperity. As for citizens, especially those in cities, it’s much easier to believe what the state dictates than to confront the persistent monstrosities happening in the country’s underbelly. So it is society too that has turned a blind eye. One is left with unabating despair.

What deeply frustrates and crushes is the moral vacuity—an eroding sense of inertness—of these stagnant backwaters. A deep, pervasive sense of loss and impotence drifts over the villagers, even the men who rape and beat their bought wives. Each lash of violence seems to be a bitter retaliation against a world that has left them behind and given them few choices of living with dignity. Severed from the country’s economic growth and the upbeat ‘Chinese dream’, these men sicken yet sadden.

I want to tell you that this movie spares us nothing. But I know that reality is only harsher and bleaker than the images. How long more will this latent moral crisis simmer? When will it reach the tipping point? Until then, our conscience can only atrophy.

作家有多大的想象力都无法超越现实本身的疯狂、炸裂和传奇。终于到了这一天,现实的荒诞和作家的想象赛跑。最后赢的是中国现实输的是中国作家的想象力。

No matter how expansive the imagination of the pen, there is no surpassing reality’s own outrageous explosiveness and notoriety. So we’ve reached this day: the absurdity of the real races literary imagination. And at last, it is China’s reality that wins and China’s authors who lose. (my translation)

Yan Lianke 阎连科

From A Foodie: Singapore Chinatown Hawker Adventure!!!

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 
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From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 
🍹
From A Foodie: California Dreamin’
🌴

Hello fellow foodies, it has been a while ; ) COVID-19 has made certain food adventures impossible for most of last year. But since my impromptu walk to Chinatown after work last week, my foodie soul has reawakened with a fervency that cannot be ignored. In my dreams, I picture myself eating oyster cake.

So my friend KW and I decided to do a food trail in Chinatown. We diligently researched and mapped out all the places we wanted to try with the meticulousness of cartographers — especially the hawker stalls we’ve heard so much about — and in a single day, we covered over ten food places (under $30/pax), explored the largest hawker center in Singapore (with 260 stalls spread across a gigantic complex), traversed several food streets and ate till we surrendered inevitably to the limits of our metabolism.

Here’s how the food adventure unfolded (ft. pictures galore and our best attempt at ratings). >:)

Chinatown Complex Food Centre

168 CMY Satay (60¢/stick)

First dish we tried: a meaty appetizer. I haven’t had satay in ages but I’m a huge meat-lover so it worked for me. Dipped in peanut sauce and interspersed with cucumber and onion slices, the skewered charred pork and chicken were skinny and not greasy at all. I give it a 7.5/10, which might be inflated because I didn’t eat breakfast and deflated because I was waiting for KW to return to the table and the freshly grilled meat chilled in the interim.

Hawker Chan — Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle 香港油鸡饭面 ($3.00)

Ordered this for the hype: this is apparently the world’s CHEAPEST Michelin-starred meal. Hawker Chan, the founder of the stall, is also the first hawker to be awarded a Michelin Star in the world. Now his Soya Sauce Chicken can be found in other countries, as a sleek restaurant chain.

Our verdict? 7/10. Not too oily; better than other soya sauce chicken dishes that KW has tried before. But for non-soya sauce chicken lovers (like me), Hainanese Chicken Rice might be a more satisfying choice.

If you’re looking for a better dining ambience, Hawker Chan has also opened a roadside restaurant right below the Complex, with air-conditioning and higher prices.

Zhong Guo La Mian Xiao Long Bao 中国拉面小笼包 (65¢/Xiao Long Bao; 50¢/Hong You Chao Shou)

The XLB is WAY better than Din Tai Fung and cheaper too. Each bite is a revelation. If it were bigger I would give it 10/10. The skin is not too thick, the soup not too oily, and the meat incredibly fresh. Because I’m difficult to satisfy, I give this 9/10.

Sichuan-style wontons is also 9/10. Not too spicy with a dash of vinegar, each wonton is wrapped in smooth slippery skin. Quote KW, who ate this for the first time in her life, each bite was “mind-blowing” (she is still reminiscing about it ten hours later).

Old Amoy Chendol ($2)

Generous heaps of red bean, pandan jelly, coconut milk and gula melaka, the chendol was satisfying even for a non-chendol lover. For chendol lovers, I think this would hit all the right notes.

The two of us give it a 7/10 for the wallet-friendly price and the nice hawker who thought we were professional food vloggers because I couldn’t stop filming everything.

Pan Ji Cooked Foods 潘记刹骑马

Sachima freshly handmade every day. What more can a dessert-lover ask for? This is one of the last places in Singapore that still handmakes sachima—frying fluffy strands of batter, binding them together with sugar syrup, and slicing them fresh for the queue of customers.

They sell out so fast that I had to come back three times just to finally bring home a packet. Although my parents found it a bit too sweet, I love how fresh it is. You can taste the human touch. 7.5/10.

Keong Saik

Keong Saik Bakery

KW had the Two-face Burnt Cheesecake ($8.50), which is creamy cheese atop matcha cheese. Oozing, rich, crustless, dense. Each bite is a guilty pleasure. She rates her first bite as 8/10 but detracts a mark overall because it got too heavy for the palate towards the end. Kind of overpriced for a cake that she couldn’t finish.

I ordered the Matcha Burnt Cheese Cruffin ($6.50) which was a 9/10. I had this with ice-cream and tea from Apiary and could only heave a happy sigh. The bittersweet matcha syrup gushed over the flaky crust and creamy center like lava. Each bite was indulgent.

Apiary ($4.20-$5/scoop)

Possibly the best ice-cream place in Singapore. With flavors like Blue Milk, Ferrero Rocher, and Baileys & Brownies, there is no shortage of creative options. I went for Blue Milk (milk based ice cream infused with blue pea flowers and seasoned with a pinch of Himalayan pink salt) and a pot of Yuzu Pear Blossom tea while KW went for Sicilian Pistachio in a cone. We unanimously award 9/10 for both flavors. I loved the milkiness and the floral undertones, which mixed perfectly with the cruffin from Keong Saik Bakery. The hot tea in a dainty pot diluted any cloying sensation.

Maxwell Food Centre

Tong Xin Ju Special Shanghai Tim Sum ($4 for 8 pieces)

I DECLARE THIS THE BEST DUMPLING PLACE IN SINGAPORE. Best dumpling of my life, aside from my dad’s. No dumpling beats my father’s but this one comes close. This was the last stop of our day and we swore that we could only eat 8 dumplings. Then, immediately after splitting the first plate, we couldn’t resist ordering the steamed version.

I would go out on a limb and say that the steamed dumplings were even better than the fried ones. They are ultimate comfort food on a rainy day, a sunny day, and all the days in between. The San Xian filling with well-marinated meat and chives were addictive. Made fresh daily, the dumplings deserve 9/10 for the fried, 10/10 for the steamed.

What a pitch-perfect ending to a tummy-filled, 10,000-step day. There are few other places in Singapore where you can get such a concentration of handcrafted, intergenerational recipes within a ten-minute radius. Chinatown, beyond its temples and tourist-favorite Food Street, has many age-old surprises waiting for you. Try before they disappear!

Hawker centers are one of the places where daily dedication to taste and economical prices coalesce. Where else can I find food this cheap that tastes better than most restaurants around the world? The adventure continues.

A stroll at dusk: Chinatown

This is the 100th post on the blog and the first post of 2021. Here’s the full Chronicle. Thank you for being here, thank you for allowing my stories to enter your life : )

I love walking. The best way to experience a city is, partly, to be a flâneur: passionate wanderer, aimless saunterer, happy stroller. Grid-like Manhattan with its broad avenues, paved Gion streets lined with machiya and shrines, Beijing hutongs, the sloping city of Chongqing and the steep cobblestone steps of Jiufen, dingy Kamagasaki and raucous Dotonbori, Cairo with its reckless drivers and friendly locals, railway tracks in Hanoi, tea fields and rice terraces in Bali, Charles River at night and Massachusetts Ave in the day on H-mart runs…

And there’s my island home, Singapore. A Friday evening walk on a whim takes me to unseen corners and colors. How often do you feel like a tourist in your own country?

At 5:36pm, I leave the Treasury building at High Street, where the Prime Minister’s Office is located. The Supreme Court is right across the road with its UFO-shaped dome; the Parliament House sits at a diagonal angle; the National Gallery readily beckons, blue cupola in the distance.

Down North Bridge Road I go—steel and glass skyscrapers bearing familiar bank logos tower on Singapore River’s faraway bank—and over the white boxy Elgin Bridge (named after Lord James Bruce Elgin who was the Governor-General of India), which strides atop one of my family’s favorite riverwalk restaurants, JUMBO Seafood.

Past Doctor TJ Eckleberg’s eyes, for the new ages.

Past the infamous Hong Lim Park with its Speaker’s Corner (the only venue in the country where public protests are allowed), a meadow of peace that idles in the bustle of the commercial district. Strangely empty though the sidewalks are strewn with white-collars, it’s a green oasis in a concrete jungle.

As skyscrapers peter out, the new recedes, usurped by the past. A single traffic junction demarcates two different eras of architecture. Behind me: tall public housing blocks, office buildings and a WeWork storefront. Opposite: rows of multi-hued shophouses. Strings of cartoon zodiac lanterns hang over the drone of traffic, for miles and miles. Each zodiac animal is a pufferfish-like emoji. Beside me, an old couple pauses to capture photos. Festivity of the Lunar New Year dots the blue skies.

I cross. The junction, fittingly, is called Cross Street. From now on it’s solidly Chinatown. A swirl of cultures in a melting pot.

The ambling continues past the pastel green minarets of Masjid Jamae, one of Singapore’s oldest mosques.

Past the Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Its ornate five-tiered gopuram on Pagoda Street is lined with figurines: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer. I spot Sepoy soldiers in their khaki uniforms, harkening back to the time of the British Raj.

At the Chinatown Food Street, I buy pineapple tarts from Kele—traditional sunflower shaped ones and cheese-flavored pineapple balls. Conan is also there, buying durians. Hee.

Past the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, South Bridge Road opens up into a four-lane boulevard. Ahead, the 50-storey Pinnacle@Duxton, the world’s tallest public residential buildings, stand erect like dominoes.

To my left is a nondescript open-air complex, whose plain beige walls belie its true status: pure food heaven because it’s Maxwell Food Center—the mecca of hawker centers. All thoughts of no-dinner diet are promptly forgotten. Tian Tian Chicken Rice is worth breaking my intermittent fasting for. So are the fried sanxian dumplings, washed down with lime juice. The entire meal costs only $9, all effortlessly paid by scanning QR codes. I’m about to buy Fuzhou oyster cakes to bring home but the uncle tells me that everything is sold out for the day. And it’s only 7pm.

Belly full, I weave through the void decks of an old HDB and emerge onto another street of Art Deco-style and colonial-era shophouses. Two rights, one left, past boutique hotels, hip bistros and artisanal bars, and I’m at my final destination. Basque burnt cheesecakes to go at Keong Saik Bakery. A gem in a modern village full of old-world charm.

For the first time since the pandemic began, I clock 10,000 steps in a day. Right before I enter the mouth of the MRT station, I spot the brutalist mustard-yellow and green People’s Park Complex, windows blazing in the darkness. I think back to the time when I was thrown off its premises and forced to return under the cover of the night to report on its lift breakdowns (People’s Park Complex residents plagued by hour-long waits for lifts, The Straits Times). I grin.

Goodbye, 2020

2020 is a year of records set, plans broken, trajectories transformed, passions lived.

It marks the first time I’ve stayed indoors for four months straight. For 120 days, I didn’t take a single step out of the apartment. (!!!)

It marks the most words I’ve written in a year, ever. All these years I’ve talked about writing a novel and turns out, it really IS doable.

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 Books: 12 Top Reads in 2020

Favorite Skincare Product: Sulwhasoo Herbal Clay Purifying Mask
Honorable Mentions: L’Occitane Cherry Blossom Shimmering Lotion, AmorePacific Moisture Bound Rejuvenating Eye Treatment Gel

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 ❤️

With love,

12 Top Reads in 2020

Hello dear reader, HAPPY HOLIDAYS! ✨

I was drafting my annual Year-in-Review post but became spoilt for choice when trying to narrow down my favorite read of 2020 to one.

So a happy sidetrack: I pick my top read for each month of the year. What better way is there to sum up 2020 than to do a merry-go-round of books? 🎡

Whoosh goes the roulette of months—

January: My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk

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.

I, 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.

February: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

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.

March: Outline, Rachel Cusk

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.

on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

April: The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh

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.

on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

But what about science-fiction and literature featuring the posthuman? I was persuaded by Ghosh initially and then could not resist complicating his reading. The solution was to write an essay. 🧠

May: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

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 Yorker video.

June: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin + Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

A conversation across time.

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.

July: 《鹌鹑》它似蜜

独一无二的一篇文,看得我又压抑又痴醉。两个疯子,两个不爱世的人学会爱的故事。他们彼此之间不懂得如何好好的爱,但也只有他们才能拴得住对方,也只有他们能让彼此痛苦,也只有他们彼此需要。说杨剪是薄情人,是山间的风,但他也愿意被拢住,有牵挂,愿意对那只与他伴舞的蝴蝶温柔。冷淡却迷人的男孩呀。他是黑色的明月、月下的湖山、山峰的暗面。

在网络文学中,它似蜜的文笔令人惊艳,如水墨画,如缤纷、浓烈的内心世界。李白是不一样的,他单纯又极端,厌世却又不撞南墙不回头。在他的眼里,他有一个杯子,但只有杨剪让杯子里有了第一滴水。没有杨剪,这个杯子又怎么会满呢?

所以,李白会爱上杨剪,是必然:“当然这也是情有可原,幽默有才华笑起来带点邪气忽冷忽热又偶尔温柔到死的男人谁不喜欢。” 那么杨剪会爱上李白是他自己都无法启齿,但永远潜藏于心的秘密。我相信他爱他,如此难得。

“干净谁都喜欢,但它也太普遍了。”

“脏是难得的?”

“你是难得的。”

August: Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

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?

October: Transit, Rachel Cusk

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.

November: Less, Andrew Sean Greer

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! 💙

December: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

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.

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What are your favorite reads of 2020? 🌱

With love,