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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Tada! All my Harvard papers in 1 place.

Le Petit Prince

Public announcement on the blog!!! : )

There’s now a blog tab apart from Chronicle and Contact called…

Academic 💙🤖📘🧬🌏

…where I’ve pooled together the A-grade papers/creative coursework I’ve written for my Harvard classes. In short, I present to you the intellectual arc of my college career.

There are some that I wish I could’ve done better, but all these intellectual-babies were born out of many frantic stretches of procrastination, mugs of green tea, adrenaline-filled nights, quiet conversations with professors, incredible seminars, and playlists full of stirring film soundtracks and sad Chinese love ballads.

The two things I’ve done most at college? Quite possibly reading and writing. 📚✍️ Very grateful to the professors, classmates, and TFs, who have truly expanded my mind in lecture/seminar and given me the freedom to engage with the ideas that excite me the most — these papers pretty much encapsulate and distill those intellectual experiences into my own words.

So just the other day, when I was trying to find something I wrote in high school (and literally COULD NOT FIND IT!), it struck me how scary it is to pour your mind and soul into an intellectual exercise or even crafting something from scratch (paper-writing is akin to creation) BUT then consign it to some spartan, dusty corner on the Mac, before they get carelessly deleted and lost forever someday down the road. In fact, apart from the eyes of my professors and TFs (Teaching Fellows), these papers have just languished unread.

(travesty!!!) (i feel so guilty to my past self, the one hunching over the Mac and punching furiously on the keyboard with six dog-eared books beside her) (it’s like having a short-lived passionate affair before negligence and then eternal limbo)

Therefore, I’ve finally decided to salvage these papers from the black hole of my laptop storage and to leave them all in one place for easy reference.

Happy reading! If you actually finish reading any and would like to talk about it, I would be very EXCITED to!!!

tom and jerry

Lots of love,

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A day ft. Jeff Zucker, Fareed Zakaria & Amanda Lee Koe

🌟 07/10/2019 🦄

Just want to mark this date on the blog: July 10, 2019 (even as the minutes slowly tumble into July 11, 2019).

If there’s one day I want to carve into my memory from this entire summer thus far, it’s July 10. It’s the most exhilarating and stimulating day I’ve had in a long, long while.

In the morning, all the CNN interns (around fifty or so) met Jeff Zucker, the President of CNN. It was really cool to see him in person. (He’s a Harvard alum!)

A few hours later, rather spontaneously, Fareed (the host of the show I’m working for — Fareed Zakaria GPS) asked the other intern and me to join him for lunch. Like WOW. Seriously one of the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve ever had. You might not feel it that keenly watching him on TV, but hearing him respond unscripted to your questions in person is clarity personified. The astute insight and the brilliance in the way he articulates how he thinks about the world really do inspire. He even mentioned the time he interviewed Lee Kuan Yew (😭😍*) for Foreign Affairs and LKY’s brutal frankness.

(*which really makes me wish that I could have had the chance to talk to LKY in person before he became buried in time and referred to in past tense. Because he had one of the greatest, brightest minds, but now he lives on in history books, the institutions he built, and conversations like this.)

Straight after work, I took the subway to SoHo for the book launch of Amanda Lee Koe‘s Delayed Rays of a Star. Her Instagram account is so witty and personable, with little nuggets of stories and flashing snippets of life. Since reading The Ministry of Moral Panic in one afternoon (standing for hours in Kinokuniya), I’ve been following her life on Instagram.

And now I’ve met her in person!!!

THERE IS NOTHING LIKE SEEING A YOUNG SINGAPOREAN AUTHOR ACTUALLY PUBLISH A BOOK (with a creative, glorious, cosmopolitan premise) TO PUSH YOU TO WRITE YOUR OWN NOVEL.

It took me around four years to write this novel. For the first year, I was just paralyzed by the archive, she said.

Also, there’s something special about observing the author in her process (at least from the fragments on Instagram) / knowing about the author before something gets published. You somehow realized that a book isn’t conjured but born through the minutiae of research, drowning, actually sitting down and typing away (quote Amanda, When I work, I’m like a crazy nun. All I have before me is a comb of bananas and black coffee and the only time I leave is when I need to pee.), and that it takes time time time time time. But it somehow happens. And a book is born.

Selina Xu Amanda Lee Koe

Amanda Lee Koe and me at the book launch!!!

Oops it’s 1:33AM. GOOD NIGHT.

Lots of love,

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Brevity: Renaissance Woman

Yuri

“Dark” by Xuan Loc Xuan

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.

Sometimes, I realize how much more I have to go and then —

limits.

I saw on Facebook that someone in my year won the Wendell Prize (congratulations!). It’s awarded to one Harvard sophomore annually, who is identified “as the most promising and broad-ranging scholar in his or her class.” We were Facebook friends but I don’t think we’ve ever met in real life. I Googled his name. What came up first was an article he had written for the Harvard Independent, titled “Getting In.” It was beautiful — a portrait of a young artist rendered more evocatively, gently, and vulnerably than most writers on campus (myself included) could have.

How to be a modern-day Renaissance woman (or man)? In a few seconds, I just knew. This was it.

Returning to the page of search results, I clicked the second listed site. It was a Physics department page. He was an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Physics, doing “statistical and semiclassical analysis of thermal distortion potentials.”

Before me was a vague outline of someone who was not just good but excellent at many things. I felt a burst of wonder and respect, but also intermingled in a tide of wistfulness, a dim sense of loss. It wasn’t self-negating. Yet, this brief internet encounter with a silhouette of brilliance made me rethink why I found his straddling of fields so surprising.

Our instincts are honed by stereotypes. Somewhere along the path of my education, I must have subconsciously internalized the distinctions between the literary arts and the sciences, took their gulf for granted, and happily embraced specialization. Why should scientists not be able to write beautifully? (Carl Sagan and Paul Kalanithi come to mind.) Why would it be impossible that a writer be a scientist? (Like Nabokov and his butterflies.) Are their objects of inquiry — nature and culture — all that different? The universe and its truths. The human condition. A story with different building blocks.

With the platter of liberal arts options, I have thus far chosen to do a grand zero of problem set classes at Harvard. Truth is: I’ve willingly, single-mindedly boxed myself in a rigid taxonomy of disciplines, the boundaries of which might actually be more nebulous than I think. The divisions between fields that we presume as perennial are often recent constructs — e.g. philosophy and the natural sciences (for instance, phenomenology started as psychology under Brentano).

Not sure how I will move forward with these thoughts. After all, I count myself blessed to have found an irresistible love for the humanities and the opportunity to study them at a place like Harvard. But, honestly, where else could I have had such a close brush with the contours of a renaissance man, or this acute of a realization?

(Typed this in a flurry, during a break from writing a paper that’s due tonight. Back to more practical tasks on hand!!!)

Lots of love,

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