Brevity: Why Literature?

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Brevity features short posts on the interesting, incisive, or inexplicably moving ideas I encounter at Harvard. It’s a record of the detail in those intellectual and creative moments, as well as an exploration of the curious questions that keep me up at the midnight hour. Here’s an honest snapshot of my mind.


In contemplating topics as disparate and interrelated as identity and race, violence and colonialism, migration and kinship, religion and fundamentalismtruth and reconciliation, why do we (or should we) turn to literature?

In Girl in D.C., I wrote:

So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.

In one of my classes, Genealogies of the Global Imagination, taught by Professor Homi Bhabha, several answers to the question of ‘Why literature?’ have been gradually taking shape. Here’s a tentative synthesis of some of my notes, mostly inspired by Professor Bhabha.

Why literature_

While every discipline has its own discourse (from science to history to art), literature absorbs the discourses and structures of knowledge from all these disciplines. And it does so while keeping the subjective, the affective, and the emotional alive.

Most texts from other disciplines refer to the disciplinary paradigm that they are situated in (e.g. scientific method, ethnography, historiography, social practice, forms in art, religious ritual, legal constitution). Yet, literature creates the norms within its very narrative and makes us rethink these norms. Even if a work of historical fiction is historically situated, the provocative gesture of the literary will not be judged on its factuality, but by other criteria such as emotional ferment, imaginative capacity, empathy, etc.

In particular, literature makes us think about language in a self-conscious way (an act of interpretation) and interpretation as an ethical endeavor because:

  1. the act of reading assumes a dialogical relationship
  2. therefore, engaging with literature is based on faith and trust in a dialogue with something outside you.

When we consume literature, we think, Why ishe/she saying this to me? More than just an act of meaning-making, we are also engaging in subject formation—we ask, How am I being implicated in the textual process?

So, why literature? Because it’s an encounter—like friendship—with some mode of meaning which doesn’t immediately reveal itself to you. You have to work with it in a meditative, normative approach in order to interpret.

Do you think literature is needed to understand our world today? If so, why?

Lots of love,

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My Freshman Spring Classes at Harvard

A quick update on how the semester is swinging into action before I get back to my readings (I have to read around 70 pages of business case studies for SOCWORLD 49 by tomorrow, and both Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Ulysses by James Joyce by this coming Tuesday).

I have my class schedule for Freshman Spring! Hooray!

  • [Humanities 10B] A Humanities Colloquium: From Joyce to Homer

A reverse chronological take on the great canonical works in the humanistic tradition, continuing from last semester’s Humanities 10A “From Homer to Garcia Marquez”. The professor leading my seminar is Racha Kirakosian, who teaches German and the Study of Religion. Goodbye, Profe Carrasco! 😢

  • [English 90 CNC] Conrad, Naipaul, Coetzee: Genealogies of the Global Imagination 

A 15-person English seminar taught by my idol in postcolonialism—Professor Homi Bhabha!! In Junior College (12th grade), I wrote my Knowledge & Inquiry Independent Study on “Decolonizing the Past: Can historical fiction contest the knowledge constructed in colonial historiography?” and I read some of his writings during my literature review. He is one of the most important figures in the field of post-colonial studies. I still remember mentioning his name to my Harvard interviewer when she asked why I wanted to go to Harvard.

  • [English CNM 002] Introduction to Fiction (Workshop)

A 12-person fiction writing workshop under novelist Neel Mukherjee. After last semester’s workshop, I didn’t expect myself to apply for another one this semester; but he is only here for this spring semester as a visiting lecturer, so I guess it’s now or never.

I’m still at the beginning of my writing journey and it seems like with every new piece I write I discover more things to work on. I would like to be in this workshop to continue to reinvent my writing and find a newness of language (away from clichés and tropes that I often subconsciously rely on)—how can I have greater vividness and immediacy in my stories? How to create a world that is both rich and consistent? Very honestly, in the college context, I really do simply yearn for an intellectually honest, intimate space and protected time each week devoted unreservedly to the craft of writing.

  • [Societies of the World 49] The Worlds of Business in Modern China

Entered the lottery for this super popular class (the room was so full my roommate and I had to tiptoe by the door frame to even hear what’s going on inside) taught by Professor William Kirby and miraculously got in—apparently, only 60 students are allowed to enroll out of the 190 or so who tried. The course employs Harvard Business School cases on “doing business” in modern and contemporary China, so 40% of the grade comes from class participation. Hopefully, that works out. 🙋🏻

  • [East Asian Studies 97AB] Introduction to the Study of East Asia: Issues and Methods

I am considering doing a joint concentration between English and East Asian Studies, but it’s still early so that’s definitely not set in stone. I’m taking this sophomore tutorial (open to freshmen) to see if I like how East Asian Studies is taught in a Western context. This tutorial is an interdisciplinary course taught collaboratively. Each week a different lecturer will discuss their particular disciplinary approach to the study of Asia, including topics such as:

Classical Chinese Thought, Buddhism and its Acculturation in East Asia, Chosŏn Korea, East Asia in Comparative and Global Perspective, Modern Chinese Literature in the East Asian Context, East Asia in the Cold War, Popular Culture, Media, and Early Modernity, Korea’s Search for Autonomy in the 20th Century etc. That’s it! It’s back to reading for me, guys! I’ll get a longer post out when more things have happened in my life. We can do this. 💪

Lots of love,

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Girl in D.C.

Dear You, what is art for?

Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. with seven other Harvard students on a 10-day Wintersession at Dumbarton Oaks revolving around this topic:

Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America.

In those 10 days, I’ve seen art like this:

And this:

Interestingly, this:

But also this:

Lastly, my favorite:

While wandering around all these private collections-turned-museums, I wondered: why do so many rich people collect art? Does collecting art offer the hope of immortality?

If I were a millionaire and bought artworks according to my own taste, and then proceeded to open my artworks to the public, am I doing philanthropy? Is this then effective altruism?

As a student in the humanities, I recognize that this is an increasingly data-driven world. A dispassionate assessment of value is involved in most things. Similarly, in the field of philanthropy, the value of the practical (a medical cure) is much easier to measure than that of the cultural (museums). Few people would deny the value of art museums or art itself. But, the act of opening a museum, or donating works to an existing one, is one that deals in the intangible currency of beauty, inspiration, creativity, memory, and joy. The outcomes are often measured in stories. That scruffy boy-artist who was once inspired by a green dinosaur sculpture that breezy afternoon, hands chilly and heart thumping. A girl in pigtails who gazed into the face of a Buddhist sutra on a silk tapestry and found ignited a lifelong ardor for the study of religion. On opposite totem poles balance narratives and metrics. It seems trivial to stand in a gallery and ponder the question of beauty, the virtues of Renoir, or inspect the unspeakable allure of an artwork to our eye when temperatures are rising, geopolitical depression beckons, democracy is arguably under assault, and all sorts of polarizing tensions are erupting at the surface.

Knowing all that, the question is then: is being motivated by “passion” instead of “reason” in philanthropy immoral in a world where there is need? Or, turning the gaze inward, is being motivated by passion instead of reason in choosing my studies and life’s work an ineffective use of resources?

I don’t know.

This wintersession was an incredible course. I loved going to a museum each day and discussing with professors the gospel of wealth (an interesting—and short—read: Wealth by Andrew Carnegie), the culture of giving, the economy of prestige (naming rights of buildings are a key instrument in philanthropy, as the greatest longevity is embedded not in capital but in culture), the disturbing inequality of our times, and—

The grey areas of philanthropy. By all measurements, we are living in an era of growing inequality and the consolidating power of big money. A statistic that scared me is this: the richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population. But rich people don’t just own the wealth, feel la-di-da, and spend it on private jets and Chanel bags. Intentions aside, they are shaping our lives in unimaginable ways using philanthropy. Call me ignorant, but this is the first time I really wrapped my mind around the fact that philanthropy is not an inherently good thing—it needs to be used well. Unlike the government, most philanthropic foundations (from Gates to Carnegie) have no checks and balances. They own wealth enough to rival national economies as well as social resources (tax exemption), but their agendas are set by a few individuals. What kind of impact do such megafoundations generate? For instance, Bill Gates is fixing education in the U.S. with his Common Core State Standards initiative; that means, putting it generally, one man can decide what millions of kids are going to study.

How adequate are the institutions of philanthropy to the needs of the day? How can we shape this system?

I vacillated between wonder and the alienating sense that all these questions I was contemplating in the first place were inaccessible and removed from most people’s realities. I’m sitting here in my dorm room back in Cambridge choosing classes, two days before Shopping Week begins for the spring semester, and I’m trying to make sense of all these intellectual endeavors. So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.

For those of you also coming back to campus, here’s to a semester with classes that tear apart your assumptions and equip you to rebuild them, self-discovery, friendship, and happy adventures!

Lots of love,

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(From top to bottom, the artworks can be attributed to Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Marc Chagall.) 

First Snow • 初雪

The morning view from my window. ❄️

I haven’t seen snow in three years. The last time I did was in December 2014 when it was barely snowing in London and the brownish-grey slush in the fairgrounds weirdly resembled the chocolate slurpee from 7-11. It was not pretty. I was sad.

This morning, I was barely awake and on the phone with my mom when I rolled up the blinds and saw this view. On the other side of the chilled windows was a different Cambridge from the one I had been used to. A hushed, illumined world that had lost its garish colors and sharp edges because tiny snowflakes were gently raining down and blanketing everything in soft, furry cold. All-embracing, the snow was turning everything—grey streets, balding trees, metal gates, crimson walls, sleeping cars, and boring roads—into one brilliant white.

Snow is soft and hard, white and brown, a still silence and a crunch under my boots, gentle and biting, frozen and melting, intimate and ghostly, lightly falling and thickly drifting, horizontal blurs and swirling eddies, made the instant that it is unmade, remade as it is being unmade.

Shrubs turn into cauliflowers, trees grow white flowers, slopes form pillows for feet, and a smudge of earth reveals itself when you kick hard enough at the fluffy surface. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” plays in a soft hum from my phone, people are smiling more, two strangers offer donuts and blessings, we shake snow from our heads like wet puppies and then give up after two tries, I leave my own set of footprints in the yard.

It’s Narnia, Arendelle, the Snow Queen’s palace, Lyra Belacqua’s Arctic expedition, Jack Frost, and my polar express. What a childlike, funny place a snowing world is.

I honestly don’t know if I will want to kill this post when snow loses its charming novelty once I return from winter break next January. I can already see my future spring semester self in vivid detail: freezing into a popsicle and drowning under a thousand layers, but—

For now, the snow makes me feel happy!!! This week was our reading period before Finals week, but I only have one Final Exam left. Over the past five days, I edited and submitted my 3,922-word story (titled April, I Arrive on the Shores of Your Love) for my fiction writing workshop, read aloud part of the story at a Reading Party, finished two 1,200-word papers within eight hours for the Hum 10 take-home final (comparing Oedipus the King and Meditations, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fragments of Sappho), and presented my creative translation project (on love! inspired by my parents haha) in seminar. All that’s left is my Archaeology final on Wednesday.

By this time next week, I will be in sunny sultry steaming Singapore and the only snow I will have is bingsu. 🌞

As the snow is descending upon us, everything is winding down to its final moments.

I’m grateful for this semester of quiet blessings; gentle lessons on life; genuine moments of connection in laughter-filled corridors, over late nights, and between munches; continuously tandem feelings of comfort and challenge; the cerebral sigh of content when I’m doing what I love; books that reveal to me what it means to be human across the millennia; brilliant professors who set a benchmark that is going to be hard to surpass in future classes; and all the wonderful, inspiring people I’ve met (if you’re reading this blog, you’re definitely one of them!).

See you back home/next semester/over Facetime!



His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

“The Dead” by James Joyce

Lots of Love,

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November is…

On a sunny day, we did an impromptu photoshoot outside the dorm room when it was not yet cold 😇

November is the great mystery of daylight saving time. It’s the time when night comes early, days turn dark in mid-swallow, and the sense of time grows distorted. It also makes me freak out a bit when it’s 5pm but it feels like 9pm and I’ve not yet started on my paper.

November is days bleeding into one another in a whirlwind of the now familiar routine of classes and paper-writing (I just wrote an 8-page paper last week on Descartes’ Meditations — throwback to KI!), meeting new people and connecting with friends that begin to feel curiously familiar. It’s a whirlwind interspersed with brilliant encounters with famous people in different settings (sitting in the audience as Elton John received Humanitarian of the Year from our dean onstage; attending a lunch workshop with Man Booker Prize-winning writer Michael Ondaatje, who autographed my copy of The English Patient!!).

November is cold. I’m swamped in huge furry coats, woolly gloves, and snuggly scarves, with the heater turned on high. I’ve also gotten a tad bit more used to people using Fahrenheit — thirty basically means freezing. A usual morning on the groggy side looks like this: Wakes up — opens the Weather app on my phone — stares at the 3°C below CAMBRIDGE — swipes right and surprise! SINGAPORE displays 30°C. 😭

November feels at once brand new, cloaked in autumn gold, and like the same old calendar month. Classes are winding down to the final two weeks — there’s the Harvard-Yale Game this weekend at New Haven and next week’s Thanksgiving Break in between. Then it’ll be reading period, final exams, and WINTER BREAK! I’ll be in Singapore for three weeks 🏝 and then in Washington, D.C. for ten days (look out for updates!).

November is discovering the magic of the BBC’s Jane Austen adaptations. When I had to read Emma for Hum 10 and my roommate Ani declared that she had watched the 2009 BBC Emma miniseries no less than five times, I promptly went on Hulu, clicked Episode 1, and proceeded to say goodbye to my next four hours. I finished the entire series in one sitting. It was magical and redefining. Here comes the newest pivotal dilemma of my life: who should I choose — (A) wet-shirt, broody, principled Mr. Darcy (by the incomparable Colin Firth in the 1995 version) or (B) handsome, intensely sweet, morally righteous Mr. Knightley (by the brilliantly subtle Jonny Lee Miller in the 2009 version)? QUESTION OF THE CENTURY.


“Well, of course you must choose me.”


“How can it not be me?”

November is listening to Taylor Swift’s new album Reputation at midnight. ❤️ I’ve been listening to her songs since I was eleven, through her eponymous album, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and now this; her songs are my go-to in times of crushes and heartbreak from unstarted loves. November is having her songs on repeat enough to last me (and ride out my habit of persistently playing a favorite song for 100000 times till I get sick of it) through the remainder of 2017. It’s my roommates dying from hearing her new songs in the morning when my alarm clock goes off, gets snoozed, and the scene iterates… HAHA.

My favourite Reputation lyrics

“You should take it as a compliment that I’m talking to everyone here but you.” — Gorgeous (THIS LYRIC)

“Is the end of all the endings? My broken bones are mending / With all these nights we’re spending / Up on the roof with a school girl crush / Drinking beer out of plastic cups.” — King of My Heart

“This ain’t for the best / My reputation’s never been worse, so / You must like me for me.” — Delicate

“Even in my worst lies you saw the truth in me.” — Dress

“There are no rules when you show up here / Bass beat rattling the chandelier / Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year.” — This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

“I’d kiss you as the lights went out / Swaying as the room burned down / I’d hold you as the water rushes in / If I could dance with you again.” — Dancing With Our Hands Tied

“I want your midnights, but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” — New Year’s Day

This time, Taylor also penned two poems included in the limited-release magazines accompanying the physical album — “If You’re Anything Like Me” is acutely vulnerable, but it’s “Why She Disappeared” which uncannily resonates with me.

If You're Anything Like Me_by Taylor Swift

Why She Disappeared_by Taylor Swift

I’ll have a lot more time next week to slow down, take stock of the messy brilliant college semester so far, and blog (!) once Thanksgiving recess starts on November 22. Till then! Keep warm / cool (depending where you’re at) ❤️

Lots of Love,

To warmer days,