My Junior Spring Harvard Classes ≧◡≦

Selina Xu Harvard Class Schedule (Junior Spring)

MY FAVORITE SEMESTER INTELLECTUALLY! ❤️ Before I gush, a few things:

  1. I’m back to four classes (and also auditing a fifth).
  2. This has been the best schedule I’ve had so far, with no classes on Thursdays AND Fridays.
  3. But in terms of sheer reading, I have to average three books per week (not including some of the theory/academic journals I have to read for CompLit & English, as well as my own independent research for my junior tutorial).
  4. I’ve taken classes with three of the professors in previous semesters (Homi Bhabha, David Carrasco, and David Wang).

Here’s a snapshot of my desk with stacks of books organized according to each class, from left to right, HDS 2052, ENG 191C, and COMPLIT 277:

Selina Xu Books Harvard Classes

HDS 2052: Religion Around Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez: Their Writings and Lives — Davíd Carrasco

Profé Carrasco was my Hum 10 seminar professor in my Freshman fall. Here’s a snippet of the blog post I wrote way back in September 2017, Things I Love:

The room is warm. My pulse is throbbing at an almost manic pace. In a hitched breath’s moment of unconscious cerebration, it occurs to me that I am surrounded by knowledge coming to life — in eager minds, raw stories, bustling thoughts, and this palpable sense of convivencia and of shared humanity that emerges from within all of us when we discuss vanished worlds in ancient texts (Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Poetics, Symposium…). Unbelievable, but somehow it is happening, in this time and place, in this infinite now. (I am really loving my Humanities seminar under Professor David Carrasco! Every time I walk out of class, some ineffable change washes over me; I’m not sure what it is, but I feel just a bit more comfortable with uncertainty and a little bit more certain about what gives me meaning.)

No surprise that I’m taking a class again with Profé!

This class is my first venture into the Harvard Divinity School, looking at literature through the lens of religion. In particular, we focus on two Nobel Prize-winning writers, Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez, and the religion AROUND their writings and lives. ‘Religion’ is meant in the broadest sense of the word — think of homeland and quests, sacred places and borders, memory and myths, terror and magical flight, ghosts and demons, goodness and evil, slavery and freedom, women and machismo, colonial violence and political and spiritual forms of resistance.

I’ve always been intrigued by the connection between holy and profane texts: Confucian ethics and Daoist cosmology have shaped China’s Four Literary Classics, the Greek pantheon of gods have sustained myth and tragedy, Christian symbolism and morality are intertwined with much of European literature; the same can be said for the Indic, the Islamic, and the Buddhist traditions…

The sacred and the secular are always interrelated. Great literature touches something divine.

ENGLISH 191C: Constellations — Homi K. Bhabha

My freshman spring seminar with Professor Bhabha was one of the most formative classes I’ve taken at Harvard. Even several semesters apart, I would often find myself referring to a fragment of conversation from that seminar — a certain way of looking at literature that is interdisciplinary, broadly humanist. I once wrote a short post on ‘Why Literature‘, which was inspired by that seminar.

When I tell people about this class, many are perplexed about the word ‘constellations.’ I picture it as a tapestry made from disparate intellectual threads: clusters of ideas, polyphonic conversations, and what Walter Benjamin calls “the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one” (On the Concept of History). I can’t reduce this class to a single topic — it’s very much about identity, movement, communities, and collective speculation through literature.

The wide arc of historical experience is a genealogy of histories of inequality and injustice, and life-worlds of individuals who seek to make a claim to human dignity from a variety of contexts. How can we conceive of colonization and segregation in dialogue with migration and the predicament of refugees? What does citizenship mean in an age of international cosmopolitanism and national sovereignty?

COMPLIT 277: Literature, Diaspora, and Global Trauma — Karen Thornber

Diaspora (noun)

  • The voluntary or involuntary migrations of peoples
  • A national, ethnic, or religious community living far from its native land
  • Ethnic minority groups of migrant origins residing and acting in host countries but maintaining strong sentimental and material links with their countries of origin (Stéphane Dufoix)

‘Diaspora’ has no fixed, singular definition. I like to think of it as dispersions and movements, with globalized communities and networks forming in their wake.

This being my first CompLit class, the comparative aspect really does stand out. Comparisons are never neutral: How do we think beyond our own frame of reference? How can ‘equal’ comparisons be undertaken in an unequal world? Can we start from our own position and not assume it as the center of the universe? Can we make comparisons that don’t reflect the structures of domination of the world?

The syllabus traverses many corners of the globe (every week we move to somewhere new!): African; East, South, Southeast, and West Asian (Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Korean, Vietnamese); and Middle Eastern (Jewish, Lebanese); as well as Latin American and Caribbean. Can we juxtapose traumas of one diaspora beside another?

More broadly speaking, I’m interested in trauma that’s not only event-based, but also prolonged, meandering, constant; not only centered on the poignant, persecuted figure of the refugee, but also the often invisible, assimilating, hybrid migrant.

HISTLIT 98: Junior Tutorial — Catherine Nguyen

I work with my tutor, Dr. Nguyen, towards a 6000-word (roughly 24 pages) essay on any possible topic that is remotely historical/literary, which is to say anything at all. I’m still brainstorming, but I have narrowed it down to the Anthropocene (the geological age of humans) novel, or climate fiction (cli-fi). For a long time, I was exploring my usual interests: diaspora, globalization, capitalism, postcolonialism. They all revolved around big ideas that undergirded my academic study: What does literary self-representation reveal about a subject? What is the relationship between writing and the self?

But, this semester, I’m quite obsessed with a different question: What new challenges does climate change or the Anthropocene pose to the work of the novel?

Our collective (in)ability to imagine climate change or to even imagine a future without us that is immediate, realistic, and urgent is ripe for critical dissection.

I’m totally new to the realm of climate fiction and eco-criticism. If you have recommendations for ANYTHING that could possibly be interesting, please send them my way. I need collisions! Constellations! Violent, rupturing, crazy inspirations!

CHNSLIT 245R: Literature & The State of Emergency — David Der-wei Wang

I’m auditing this class! The state of emergency — in the vein of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben — denotes the suspension of regular law and the intervention of the national sovereign. Yet, when the ‘state of emergency’ becomes normalized, regularized, and naturalized, the supposed state of exception becomes the rule.

Through case studies across the Chinese diaspora such as Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, and Lhasa, the class explores sovereignty, bare life, biopower, necropolitics, cyber-politics, contagion, disaster, slow violence, apocalypse, etc.

***

The semesters have really flown by. Gosh. Read previous renditions of my semester’s worth of classes below:

Happy to chat about any of these topics!!! 🐣✨🌲

Lots of love,

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I, Istanbul

Note: Thank you to Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and to our phenomenal trip leader Jesse for the chance to spend two weeks of my winter break in Turkey. Harvard kids, apply!!! Check out the program here.

Selina Xu Harvard CMES Turkey Winter Excursion

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The cypress and plane trees, the rooftops, the heartache of dusk, the sounds coming from the neighborhood below, the calls of hawkers and the cries of children playing in mosque courtyards mingled in my head and announced emphatically that, hereafter, I wouldn’t be able to live anywhere but in their city.

My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Funny how all you need is a novel to throw you back into the feeling that a city gave you. Memory isn’t too reliable now that I’m sitting on my bed in Cambridge trying to recollect the city from the glimpses and fragments on my phone camera roll. And Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red.

Istanbul has to be seen from up above — the balcony of the Galata Tower, the mountaintop views at the Pierre Loti Café, on the cable car from the waterside at Eyüp. After the ascent, or during, there’s a breathtaking moment where your eyes drink in the three peninsulas: on one side, Asia, the other, Europe, and then the historical side with a skyline of minarets, domes, coastal villas, electric lines.

Golden Horn Selina Xu

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.

Words, photos, and memories coalesce.

I think of sensory vignettes. The meat and onion-filled manti (dumplings) with a generous scoop of yogurt, topped off with a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. Striking blue tiles. Ornate stalactite patterns. Golden pyramids of baklavas. Cigarette butts on the floor, embers glowing. A hint of fog, always. The heartache of dusk dissipated by the fluorescent glow of the streetlamp. The city is, to the eye, a painting.

Selina Xu Istanbul Harvard January Trek CMESBaklava Selina Xu

I, Istanbul, the city sings and intones. A first-person proclamation that asserts its undisputed character amidst modernization.

But Istanbul is so hard to unravel. History assaults you on the streets, so saturated that it seeps in through your soles with all its layers and contradictions. Once the epicenter of Christendom and then the heart of the Muslim caliphate when conquered by Mehmed II in 1453, Constantinople was the seat of the Sultan till 1923 — the year the Turkish Republic was founded. The modern republic was for Turks, an ethnic-driven nationalism that would erase and stifle the breathing space even further (after the 1915 Armenian genocide) for the minorities.

Who gets to define who counts as a citizen? In our two weeks there, we saw Greek schools and Orthodox churches, Armenian foundations, Syrian and Iranian restaurants. What is Turkishness if these people have all lived on this piece of land for centuries, through the rise and fall of three empires? What is it like to grow up in a state where you don’t officially belong and yet its lands are all that you’ve known?

On January 19th, 2020, I attended the first protest in my life, commemorating Hrant Dink’s assassination 13 years ago outside what was once the offices of the Armenian weekly Agos and now Hrant Dink’s site of memory. People held placards that read “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism” and “We are all Hrant. We are all Armenian.” A Turkish journalist of Armenian heritage, Dink fought for minority rights in a country where such causes counted as violating Article 301 of the Turkish penal code (penalizing remarks against the state or insults against Turkishness).

If there’s one place I recommend that you visit in Istanbul apart from Hagia Sophia, it would be the Site of Memory. I knew nothing about the man before visiting but was moved by his fiery sense of justice and bold crusade for his beliefs. His words would eventually cost him his life, but I walked away realizing that ideas are bulletproof. They live on.

May my pen too never falter.

Hrant Dink protest 2020

Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, call you by whatever name:
Be a book on the palm of my hand,
let me run my fingers over your ridges,
your weathered pages,
blemished margins,
the ink illegible,
in a font of sorrow,
a palimpsest of empires and histories,
layer upon layer,
teach me how to read you.

Good night x

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Thanksgiving with Books and BBQ

Professor David Carrasco

With Profé Carrasco (from Hum 10)!

What’s in your magnitude?

What’s in your library?

What’s in your details?

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

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

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

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

A heap of 13 library books on my desk.

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

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

marwah and selina 1

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

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

And thank you for reading ✨

Selina thanksgiving

Lots of love,

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Conversation Sparks: Life, you’re the dancing queen

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_6775

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 marwah mamma mia

MAMMA MIA! ❤

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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