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

Spent a couple of days listening to writers and journalists speak virtually on topics ranging from billenials (billionaire millennials) to translating oneself to China’s navigation of collective historical traumas. I’ve jotted down some notes. ⬇️

First off, THANK YOU to the folks at Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF) for gifting me with a media pass to their virtual festival ❤️

In its 20th edition, the HKILF took place from November 5th-15th, with over 53 online events — some are free; some are ticketed; all are available for replay until 30th November on Crowdcast. I’ve put the ticketing information at the bottom of the post for interested folks. 🔥

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Debut Novels on Contemporary Asia

Lately, I’ve been reading lots of aged, dusty books from last century. But, as always, nothing gets me more excited than contemporary fiction that has its finger on the pulse of the moment.

Delighted to discover several new novelists writing about the millennial condition, urban alienation in Asian megatropolises, and Chinese characters in forgotten histories of the West. I’m adding them to my to-be-read pile (and hopefully, they will wind up On My Desk).

Spotlighting a few titles that I’ve culled from HKILF (links go to Goodreads):

  • Braised Pork, An Yu — a housewife wakes up to find her husband dead in the bathtub; a surrealist tale of nocturnal Beijing and the high plains of Tibet. 🛀
  • If I Had Your Face, Frances Cha — four women in Seoul, grappling with strict social hierarchies, the obsession with beauty, K-pop fan mania, and the secretive career in room salons catering to wealthy men. 💋
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pam Zhang (Booker Prize longlisted!) — two Chinese-American siblings trying to survive on the wild west frontier in the twilight of the American gold rush. 🔨
  • Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China, Karoline Kan — a memoir by a former New York Times reporter on growing up in China since Tiananmen. 🐼

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

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Jhumpa Lahiri: I Belong to Italian

I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.

Nabokov, Beckett, Conrad, and Lahiri: writers who move out of one language and into another. Like a linguistic pilgrimage, writing in a foreign tongue allows for the writer to demolish then rebuild herself, and to grapple intimately with language as fundamentally an approximation (a word which one of my Harvard professors loves to use).

I’ve always been intrigued by how Jhumpa Lahiri actively made the choice to write in Italian, an acquired language, in a deliberate shedding of the mantle of English. Hers is a voluntary exile. In her 2015 New Yorker essay (written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein), “Teach Yourself Italian,” Jhumpa chronicles various stages of her literary metamorphosis from exile to renunciation to radical transition.

All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin.

Listening to her speak, I am struck by her perpetual sense of exile, which I have felt at various points in my life. “I have never been in a place where I feel completely accepted,” Jhumpa says. Even in English, there is a “consuming struggle.” So is my relationship with English and Mandarin — both are my mother tongues, yet so often I am afflicted by a sense of incompletion and failure when writing and speaking them.

Like Jhumpa, I grew up as a child of immigrants. The hybridity of space — what she calls an orientation towards another place that you cannot physically inhabit — might have been the first seed of curiosity that drove me to write. Literature is an oblique mirror for our selves; and in the inherent instability of language, we refract our own fluid identities.

I don’t know if I can ever abandon my native languages, in search of a metamorphosis like Jhumpa. I doubt it. But her relationship towards language is one that I yearn for, a return to the state of a child, to a passionate primitivity. And her celebration of language as porous is a startling reminder for our times. (Reminds me partly of what Zadie Smith said about language.)

The height of civilization, Jhumpa points out, has always been the celebration of other languages; the circulation of other cultures challenges any monolithic vision. Conversely, disturbingly, movements that seek to preserve the purity of a language and of the associated identity run against the very instinct of civilization. The multiplicity of identities, mediated through language (and its mixtures), is central to the human condition. The politics of closure is, in this vein, regressive.

I agree.

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The Politics of Memory

Love this session by two historians, Julia Lovell and Rana Mitter (who I especially admire).

Both comment on cultural memory in China and how China tells a story of its histories to itself and to the world. Lovell talks about the omission of Maoism from China’s modern narrative post-Reform and Opening Up in the 80s (with Mao’s notable absence from the 2008 Beijing Olympics showcase of China’s historical milestones) until 2011. Bo Xilai’s rise capitalized on nostalgia towards Mao; the “red revival” he espoused bolstered his political career…until it crashed. After Bo’s subsequent downfall, the Xi regime too reinstated Maoist ideals as the fulcrum of its anti-corruption campaign — a selective, partial official sponsoring of Maoism.

Mitter too observes that the politics of memory is on vivid display this year. 2020 happens to be both the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, called the “War to Resist America and Aid Korea” (抗美援朝战争) within China. While both anniversaries were within two months of each other, there was a significant shift in national discourse and official coverage. The commemoration of the end of WWII in China not only emphasized the nation’s critical role in resisting the Japanese (中国人民抗日战争) but also China’s role in the founding of the United Nations—an emphatic call for multilateralism, strengthening international institutions, and global cooperation. Official discourse lambasted the “blame game” by some countries and the clamor for “decoupling.” Yet, just two months later, as China marked the 70th anniversary of its entry into the Korean War, Xi invoked the Maoist spirit of anti-imperialist struggle, with undertones of anti-American sentiment. He quoted Mao outright: “Let the world know that ‘the people of China are now organised, and are not to be trifled with.'” Oh, the instrumentality of history.

Memory is much alive and kicking. And it mutates. Several times, Mitter brings up China’s recent blockbuster war movie, The Eight Hundred 《八佰》, which tells the story of the Second Sino-Japanese War (specifically the 1937 Battle of Shanghai) but from the perspective of the Kuomintang soldiers (instead of the usual Communist Party point-of-view). Such a movie, he argues, would have been unimaginable in just three decades ago. It is now the world’s highest-grossing film of 2020.

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The range of thinkers, wordsmiths, and topics that HKILF has brought together is incredible. Apart from the few I highlighted above, there were numerous other virtual sessions that I so greatly enjoyed, including Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan‘s juicy, hilarious event (what a romp through his entire career!) with spot-on moderating from Lee Williamson (I couldn’t stop laughing) and David Frum‘s brilliantly incisive, candid session on rebuilding American democracy post-Trumpocalypse.

Get your Festival Pass to gain access to ALL 53 online events here, available for replay until 30th November 2020. Alternatively, email info@festival.org.hk to purchase a ticket to any 3 online events for the price of 2.

What grounds and inspires me is that, even in these unprecedented times, we recognize and celebrate the power of the written word and the value of stories. Keep reading, keep listening 🌱

xo,

SWF 2020: 刘慈欣谈科学与幻想的无限可能

Back in my sophomore year, for a class on global fictions, I read Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and even ended up writing a paper on it: Reimagining Communities: Hospitality in The Reluctant Fundamentalist vs. The Three-Body Problem.

That was my first foray into hard sci-fi. Quite stunning. Yesterday, at noon, I watched him speak at the Singapore Writers Festival. 🌟

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在今天的访谈中,刘慈欣主要谈了他创作《三体》的灵感来源,并畅聊了幻想对于人类社会的意义。💡🛸

人类始终面对着宏大、沉寂的宇宙,至今也还未发现另一种智慧物种的存在。《三体》便是大刘的一个大胆猜想:假如宇宙有大量的智慧文明,那么在这个宇宙社会里,人类将处于什么样的地位呢?👽

虽然他在三部曲中描述的是最黑暗、最糟糕的一种可能性,但大刘坚持那并非意味着他是个悲观主义者。相比一个光明的未来,一个悲观的未来更有利于故事情节的展开。

有一名读者问了个我也很感兴趣的问题:《三体》是否包含了对于现实和政治的隐喻?

我还记得曾与哈佛Graham Allison教授曾谈论过“黑暗森林”对于国际关系的映射。但大刘说:

我对科幻作为政治或现实的隐喻没有任何兴趣。

大刘进一步解释道:“真正的科幻小说是‘无所指的’,只指向它自身。” 如1984、Brave New World这些包含未来科技的小说,并不常被归类为科幻小说。那正是因为它们是另有所指的,意图在于批判现实。

另一位读者提出:当前全球肆虐的疫情是否对他有任何启示,或者提供了小说的灵感?

大刘的回答引人深思。他直言不讳,新冠肺炎是一个意料之中的现象,往往病毒的扩散都有一个缓冲期。纵观人类社会的发展,它并不是直线的;虽然回望过去三十年的历史一直发展平稳,但更宏观的发展规律其实充满了变数,期间多次发生过大规模的传染病。然而,人类社会对未来意外的种种可能依然准备不足。例如,外星文明降临地球这种我们很少思考的问题,才是最始料不及的。它们随时都可能出现,也许一百年后,但也可能就在明天。大刘道:

可是,外星人的到来将不会有缓冲期。

中国社会正处于快速现代化进展中,给科幻小说的发展提供了很肥沃的土壤。也许我们穷极一生也无法走出地球这个房间,但至少科幻小说让我们能够从思想上走出封闭、狭窄的时空。🌏

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Thank you to SWF 2020 for a complimentary digital pass! ❤️

Lots of love,

SWF 2020: Zadie Smith’s Intimations

Singapore Writers Festival 2020 is happening from now till 8 Nov. 🎉
Read my overview of the festival here.

This is my first time hearing Zadie Smith’s voice and she is just as sharp as she is on the page. Parts of what she says resonate so much it feels like she is stapling words into my head.

Over the course of an hour, Zadie talks about writing (how the impulse arose for Intimations, her newest essay collection), the “platforms” that dominate our lives, and about language.

When she picked up the pen it was initially out of an urge to return to a distance away from technology, back to her rate, her time, her space. As writers, she says, there’s more than one way to think, more than one way to write, and more than one way to live — you don’t have to live at the frenetic pace of clicking notifications, scrolling, giving hot takes, and doing violent arguments. We think this is how we ought to live, “embedded in the algorithm,” and that it’s as natural as breathing.

But it was invented by a couple guys on the West Coast of the United States.

Watching her on my screen, animated, freckles capering about, the lure is undeniable.

She interrogates, reminding, “Things could be otherwise,” which she calls a mantra for all writers; that no matter how feverish, how manic the collective dream of social media, and how convincing ideology is when disguised as nature, writers need to observe better. And to observe requires them to sometimes abstain from the language of their times, to separate themselves from a massive medium (be it the TV in the 80s, or Instagram now), and to engage with — not symbols, not abstract ideas — the detail of lives.

The language of our times. What is it?

A few words surface frequently over the course of her conversation with moderator Joel Tan. Cultural appropriation. Privilege. Memes. What it means to be a woman. What it means to be black, white, Chinese, other, a person of color (or not), underrepresented, overrepresented, to be a good informed citizen.

“Language is not truth,” says Zadie.

Language offers a frame to make sense of our lives because experience is without form, as is interior life, as are our feelings. And perhaps all our lives are a makeshift attempt to grab onto a frame for the roiling madness of experience. No frame — a novel, an article, an argument, a meme, a caption, a slogan, a quote — can be permanent. The language that we hold onto is always transformable, partial, relative, and will one day be washed away as was the language of the generations before us. Our 19th century human counterparts had an utterly different conception of “equality.” No surprise. Those in the 22nd century will sweep away our language too.

The danger, then, as Zadie suggests, is in letting a secondary medium provide you with the language of thought and assuming that its language is innocent, neutral even. Social media mediates, nudges, forces upon us a certain language, standardised by algorithms to the point of banality. She brings up the example of Gmail offering to finish our sentences.

I wonder if she’s right. Then I think about who is even listening. Zadie probably wonders the same thing because at some point in the hour, she says, big eyes staring right at the camera, “I wonder if I’m writing for a person who is quickly, swiftly ceasing to exist.”

The kind of person who reads more books and essays than memes and listicles? Or the kind of person who isn’t embedded in the algorithm? Or the kind who, paraphrasing Orwell, do their own thinking instead of letting others do their thinking for them?

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Zadie Smith is no doubt provocative. I love that.

In particular, I take time reflecting on her insistence that writing should neither be a social media exhibit nor a performance for the algorithm because I do write for an audience (hi there, you who are reading). It’s near impossible to be Marcus Aurelius nowadays — someone writing only for himself — unless I’m keeping a physical diary.

I guess I don’t have an answer. In secondary school, I was obsessed with Facebook. Then, I came to Instagram two years later than all my friends did, only after I had finished A-levels. Over the past few months of COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve intentionally weaned myself off social media for long stretches of time.

But this blog, this corner of the internet, feels different. It nourishes me instead of depletes. It allows for ambiguity, for nuance, for meandering paragraphs instead of pithy, immediate, surface representations. Maybe that’s why I still read novels and am trying to write one. To make sense of this world, this life, this moment. For me, it feels like a hard hard thing to do. And so I write.

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Thank you to Zadie Smith and moderator Joel Tan for the illuminating conversation! Many thanks to the wonderful Singapore Writers Festival team for the complimentary digital pass! Check out the exciting programme in the days ahead here.

I’ll be covering Liu Cixin’s event tomorrow!!!

Lots of love,

Book Review: The Golden Age 黄金时代 by Wang Xiaobo 王小波

In 1997, two decades after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Xiaobo died prematurely of a heart attack. This was five years after his debut novella The Golden Age made him one of the most widely read and discussed authors among disillusioned youth in China. While initially met with hostility from the literary establishment, he’s now a cult favorite.

The novella (his most iconic work) is a bold foray into love and sexuality under a totalitarian regime — a Kafkan take on the link between chastity and political orthodoxy (a rather Orwellian theme, think: 1984). The narrative is a story framed within a story: the narrator, Wang Er, recounts his affair with a young doctor Chen Qingyang in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, from the vantage of twenty years after. The triangulation of sex, language, and power in the story sets the stage for an absurdist love story on multiple levels. For one, there’s the Maoist sublime at the backdrop of the action, wherein each person’s body is subsumed in ideological fanaticism and a libidinous impulse directed towards the state. For another, there are the two protagonists, who use their bodies in defiance of Party politics through bizarre sexual escapades — the most delightfully weird scene is them having sex in the wilderness, beside a water buffalo. An ironic parody of the rural country, which lies at the heart of China’s “Down to the Countryside” movement (上山下乡), the novella oscillates between resistance and regression, transgression and farce. Sex in The Golden Age functions not just as protest but also as a metaphor for state power and the voluntary, even pleasurable, collaboration of those subject to it.

What I like most is how Wang presents the Cultural Revolution as absurd and obscene in its theatricality and codification of desire. By having his protagonists consecrate the profane dimensions of desire, Wang celebrates a temporary escape from the prevailing ‘truth’ of puritan devotion to the state. The carnal pastime, however, is an almost nihilist negotiation with one’s own body and psyche — Wang’s deadpan language, cavalier tone, and flattened emotional affect powerfully evoke the collective ennui of that era.

While many academics have long perceived the Cultural Revolution as a sadomasochistic theatre, where the state dominates and the individual submits, a different portrait appears in The Golden Age.  The story is an unlikely sexual carnival, à la Mikhail Bakhtin. Through Wang Er’s deadpan humor, cavalier tone, and reverence towards sex, the carnivalesque energy thrums, parodying and undermining the socialist agape. The sexual detail in the narrator’s confessions to the authorities (检讨书) and the festive spectacle of the couple’s struggle sessions (公开批斗会) point to the subversive nature of language. By indulging in the absurdity of their situation, the characters escape mere victimhood and reclaim their bodies and minds from Party ideology.

The Golden Age hints at revolutionary nostalgia — not for the Maoist agrarian utopia, but for the lost possibility of love even in a time of extreme violence and total upheaval of meaning. By reigning in explicit violence and unleashing its dark energy through the absurdist carnival of sex, The Golden Age ultimately gestures to love as the forbidden password to liberation.

You kissed my belly button, right? I was right on the edge—I almost fell in love with you in that moment.

Beauty Diaries: Skincare Life Hacks

Today’s post is not about reviewing products!!! For that, go to Beauty Diaries: My College Skincare Routine.

Not only have I tried no new products in my four months of stay-home hermit life till August, but my 8 and 10-step morning and night skincare routines (which I once thought would persist till the end of days) have also tapered off: I now do 0 steps in the morning and 4 steps at night. 😵

YET, even without my extensive product routine, my skin condition has remained surprisingly stable with some noticeable improvements on good days (when I’m not eating junk food or staying up late 🧟‍♀️).

I have found certain little habits in daily life—I dub them SKINCARE LIFE HACKS—indispensable for my skin condition. As basic as they are, if you can integrate them into your lifestyle, these life hacks are cheaper, healthier (no chemicals!), and more sustainable and effortless than a 10-step routine. (Though maybe the real trick is to find the best of both worlds.)

👉 DRINK WATER — water is the real fairy potion (not SKII) 💧💧💧

TBH, my skin was not that great back in JC. I used to barely drink water—one cup in the morning and probably at most a small water bottle’s worth throughout the rest of the day.

To solve the problem, I have made drinking water the essential start to my day. Before I allow myself to eat anything in the morning, I drink four cups of warm water, ~800ml. For lunch, I drink another cup around 30 minutes before the meal.

I am a warm water addict. I never drink plain water cold, not even at restaurants!!! (American restaurants, weirdly, automatically serve iced water even in the depths of water.) Not only does warm water in the morning help flush out toxins and cleanse the digestive system, studies have shown that it helps with weight loss and combats premature aging.

Now, on average, I drink at least 2000ml of water per day. I’ve kept it up over the past two years. Healthy hydration starts inside out!

👉 GLOW FROM WITHIN — what you eat > what you put on your face 🍽️

Eating healthy once in a while doesn’t help, so I try to make healthy foods part of my routine.

Integral staples of my daily intake include (I do NOT put them on my skin though some do):

  • Lemon 🍋: Part of my biggest motivation to visit the dining hall at Harvard was to restock tiny lemon slices HAHA. I add a slice of lemon to my water bottle each day. At night, when it’s no longer that sour, I eat the lemon. Vitamin C helps with whitening and clarifying. [Read: benefits of eating lemon.]
  • Honey 🍯: Probably the closest thing to the Greek gods’ ambrosia. I usually add honey to my first cup of warm water. Both honey and lemon have antioxidant properties that combat aging & wrinkles.
  • Fruits 🍌 and vegetables 🥦: Do I need to say more? I generally make sure I eat three fruits per day.

👉 STOP TOUCHING YOUR FACE! 🙀

How apt for COVID-19 times, no??

Even outside of the pandemic context, I don’t touch my face without having cleansed my hands. The bacteria on our fingers can easily cause irritation and inflammation. Curb the urge to touch your pimples!

For objects that come into contact with your face, make sure they stay clean. I use wet wipes on my glasses and phone daily to keep bacteria at bay and oil from clogging pores. Pillow sheets, which can collect sebum and skin residue, should also be changed frequently. (I change mine once or twice a week.)

👉 DO-IT-YOURSELF FACIAL MASSAGE 💆🏻

But…When your hands are clean, MASSAGE AWAY~

At night, after cleansing and showering, I use my thoroughly cleaned hands to apply products to my face.

While applying these creams, a daily DIY massage can keep your face young and supple, firming facial muscles and boosting blood circulation.

To keep it short and simple, I apply each product with a massage:

  • Tapping the forehead. Press between brows and slide up and over the forehead.
Woman Facepalming: Light Skin Tone on Apple iOS 13.3
  • Firming with serum. Push skin from chin to cheeks in vertical upward strokes. Prevent saggy cheeks and deep smile lines.
Hugging Face on Google
  • 👀 Contouring the eye. Lightly sweep under the eyes and stroke up. This promotes collagen production and allows the eye cream to penetrate. Say no to crow’s feet!
  • Jaw lifting with moisturizer. Use your palms to slide up-and-out from mouth to ear. This reduces jawline puffiness and also creates a lifting effect. End with five sweeping motions down the neck.
Raising Hands on Google Android 11.0

👉 GOOD OL’ FASHIONED FACIAL STEAMING ♨️

Caveat: does NOT work for all skin types. Be careful if you have sensitive skin.

I used to be skeptical about the method because the whole opening-up-your-pores rhetoric sounded like pseudoscience. My mom, however, swears by this practice. For a woman in her fifties, her skin condition (sun spots but no wrinkles) convinced me to try it out.

Every morning, I boil water and pour it into a big bowl. At a safe distance, I put my face over the bowl for around 3-5 minutes and wash my face with tap water immediately after. Some people use facial steamers; others add ingredients to their steams (herbs, oils, etc.).

While initial effects may be subtle, after a few months my face now looks firmer, younger, and more hydrated than ever (even without copious amounts of serum and cream). My pores have also shrunk. If you’ve ever been to the sauna and onsen, you know how good this feels. ❤️‍🔥

[Read: What does steaming do for your face?]

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What skincare life hacks do you use?

Stay safe, stay RADIANT!