a late-night love letter to taylor swift’s folklore

for taylor swift

when was the last time I listened to an album from the first track to the last, no pauses, no skips, no shuffling, no multi-tasking, and with my eyes closed? maybe it was six years ago when “1989” came out on my graduation night from nanyang.

folklore,” in its entirety, is sixty-three minutes. i can’t imagine trusting another artist this much, to take her hand and enter into a sonic world of her making, leading me through sixteen snapshots of her stream of consciousness. i can’t imagine either caring enough to discern each lyric in a song, afraid to miss a word. it isn’t often that words move me in a song; i’ve always been more of a melody person. but when it comes to taylor, her lyrics are everything.

i still remember at the age of ten when my classmate called me on the landline and screamed over the phone that i had to watch the music video for a song called Love Story this very instant — not a moment more, she was going to hang up now, and i had to do so in the next breath. i did. i fell in love instantly, with how i could hear an entire story in a handful of verses and how iconic a bridge could be (Romeo proposes, thank God). even now, i close my eyes and the flashback starts.

her lyrics have done more than simply accompany me through my childhood and teenage years; they amplify the highs and the lows, putting into words what i don’t know how to say — I’d Lie for how I would never confess a word about my crushes in elementary school, The Way I Loved You for new year’s eve resolutions, Come in With the Rain and Cold As You for angsty bus rides and fights with best friends, Long Live for vibrant encounters and nostalgic goodbyes, Breathe, If This Was a Movie, Back to December and All Too Well for nonexistent heartbreaks and youthful melodrama, Enchanted and You Are in Love for moments brimming with attraction and racing heartbeats. taylor isn’t the most poetic lyricist out there but the most relatable.

folklore” is a complete pivot from “Reputation” and “Lover,” in a good way. no more trap, slick synth-pop, EDM, radio-friendly bubblegum pop! taylor’s quiet storytelling is back, stripped to the bare minimum, the closest we can get to hearing how the song sounded in her head. it’s no longer as angry or dreamy as her previous two albums. it’s a sad, moody album — contemplative, introspective, and strangely (for a swiftie) no longer as autobiographical. as taylor herself writes, in her prologue letter below, these songs are an escape into fantasy, history, and memory. this time round, she inhabits characters, excavates their untold, innermost thoughts, and writes them out in the sky for all to behold. and maybe because she is in the skin of these characters, the lyrics are more vulnerable than ever — subtle but still plaintive, unencumbered enough to be truly intimate. the lowercase aesthetic of the album (every track is in lowercase!) suggests a chill nonchalance: at last, taylor swift doesn’t care; at last, she eschews the ‘I’ (à la bell hooks). she frees herself from the intense scrutiny on the self to simply tell a story.

the hazy mistiness of “folklore,” from its black and white album image in a forest (taylor diminutive amidst giant tree trunks) to the dusky piano by the flickering fireside in Cardigan, permeates the lyrics too. her songs this time are rambling, no longer as precisely engineered.

i love the ambiguity, the messiness, the open-endedness. what matters is not the kernel but the haze, as Joseph Conrad tells us:

…to him [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine

Heart of Darkness

my favorite points of the album are those hazy moments, lingering on the periphery of a chorus, hitting me in the gut.

***

the 1

the best taylor swift album opener since State of Grace (“Red”).

“In my defense, I have none / For never leaving well enough alone.”

the last great american dynasty

the delicious tidbits!!!

a life story in three minutes and fifty seconds. the devil’s in the details, truly — i guess when you own an infamous mansion with provenance, you can write a hella good song about even your house? reminds me of Starlight (“Red”), which is about Ethel and Bobby Kennedy.

i can tell that taylor admires Rebekah Harkness, her unabashed wildness, shamelessness at being called the maddest woman in town, and most of all, how she had a marvelous time ruining everything.

They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green

the neighbor is Dali. i rest my case. she is a genius.

exile

one of my favorite songs on the album. the duet with Bon Iver is devastating. the analogy of exile for heartbreak is pitch-perfect.

I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?

You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out

I can see you starin’, honey
Like he’s just your understudy
Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me
Second, third, and hundredth chances
Balancin’ on breaking branches
Those eyes add insult to injury

seven

the folksiest, most spectral song on the album. also a solid favorite. i love the whimsical whispers, the garden and space imagery (“Love you to the moon and to Saturn“), the wilderness and nostalgia. gives me sad, wistful Bridge to Terabithia vibes, which i cried over as a kid.

Please picture me in the trees
I hit my peak at seven
Feet in the swing over the creek
I was too scared to jump in
But I, I was high in the sky
With Pennsylvania under me

Please picture me in the weeds
Before I learned civility
I used to scream ferociously
Any time I wanted

august

surprisingly, the line that guts me the most isn’t the gorgeous sentence in the chorus— “August sipped away like a bottle of wine / ‘Cause you were never mine” — but the part in the bridge.

wanting is enough. so true, isn’t it?

Wanting was enough
For me, it was enough
To live for the hope of it all

this is me trying

And it’s hard to be at a party when I feel like an open wound
It’s hard to be anywhere these days when all I want is you
You’re a flashback in a film reel on the one screen in my town

the cinematic motifs have been constant throughout her career — If This Was a Movie! — and the line above is like a one-horse town moment.

and this one line: “I got wasted like all my potential.” oof.

illicit affairs

the last verse saves the song. i wish i came up with this line: “You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else.”

And you wanna scream
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me
You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this idiotic fool that you made me
You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else
And you know damn well
For you, I would ruin myself
A million little times

invisible string

in chinese folklore, the lunar god of matchmaking connects a red thread of fate between soulmates (千里姻缘一线牵,万年修来共枕眠), no matter the distance — an invisible cord that may tangle (knots symbolize hardships and obstacles) but will never break, leading lovers to their destined encounter. the mythic imagery pulsates in this song, winding through curious, mystical, wondrous time.

also, the bridge is taylor swift at her peak:

A string that pulled me
Out of all the wrong arms, right into that dive bar
Something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire
Chains around my demons
Wool to brave the seasons
One single thread of gold
Tied me to you

mad woman

makes me think of Wide Sargasso Sea (reviewed in on my desk) and Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. women and hysteria are perennially linked themes — madness is often essentialized as a female trait, a defiant subversion of the patriarchy that must be suppressed, and dubbed a “wrong” in the face of scientific rationality which grounds modern civilization. the mad woman, as a literary character that haunts the texts by numerous female authors and now taylor, is the author’s double, the incarnation of rage that finds no easy release without violent protest.

an excellent essay on the topic is Leslie Jamison’s Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

betty

teenage me would gobble this up. now, it just makes me nostalgic for the Tim McGraw and Our Song days, when i had short hair and was anxious about bumping into certain boys from across the bridge.

hoax

“Stood on the cliffside screaming, ’Give me a reason'” — listen for this single line.

another go-to breakup ballad for the ages. i love this song so much, gets better with every listen.

and thus “folklore” ends with these final lines:

My only one
My kingdom come undone
My broken drum
You have beaten my heart
Don’t want no other shade of blue but you
No other sadness in the world would do

***

like taylor, in isolation my imagination has run wild. how to pull from solitude the utmost depths of ardor? taylor confesses, weaving magic: embody other lives, dream about past selves, wonder about missed turns and broken glances, delve into parallel universes, brush the dust off aged secrets and forgotten desires, and follow the thrust of emotion towards its unfinished expression.

thank you, taylor, for your music.

and also, thank you to your music for always being so crushingly, achingly, gloriously romantic.

lots of love,

on my desk: thinking about race

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a regular feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I’m reading, either for class or leisure. In light of the protests against racial injustice in the U.S. and around the world, I revisit a few formative works that have shaped how I think about race.

Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon

A tour de force. With an eruptive, immersive language, Fanon places the reader in an ironic situation, enacting a double role as both the offender and the offended, as the insulted and the insurgent. Think, for instance, of the the sheer shock and power of the opening enunciation of the chapter on “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” A little white boy cries, “Look! A Negro!” This moment of encounter fixes not only Fanon but also the reader in a subject position. Reading the rest of the book is very much a phenomenological experience.

Through personal experience, historical critique, psychoanalysis, and even Hegelian dialectics, Fanon reappropriates and reassembles the racism that black bodies experience and uses the language of racism to reassemble his agency. By mimicking the voice of racism, Fanon ironizes the mode of racist discourse, instantiating the power invested into the ontology: bodies are constructed; one is not born black but becomes black. Blackness, à la Fanon, is the body schema collapsing into an epidermal-racial schema under the white gaze and use of language.

If you’re interested… read The Wretched of the Earth, also by Fanon. He turns the psychoanalytic lens towards the colonial condition and the path to decolonization.

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

My first taste of Baldwin. So many years later, his treatise on race relations in America still lights the way. His vision of what America must become burns all the more urgently amidst cries of making America great again. There is something quite gentle about his message (I think he is a romantic at heart), one which embraces love in the face of polarity and antagonism, emphasizes mutuality mediated through difference, and elucidates the sensuality of black people’s resilience (“To be sensual is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread”). His profundity is hidden amidst everyday detail.

Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?

More than conjuring the image of the manor house set ablaze by ex-slave Clytie in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Baldwin also attacks the assumption behind “integration,” which in 1963 meant the acceptance of blacks by existing white norms and institutions. Instead, Baldwin challenges that it is black people who must accept the whites and accept them with love. America must be freed and renewed, its long-clutched innocence of origins itself a crime and a feature of white supremacy.

Provocatively, Baldwin champions love. Blacks and whites have a duty to achieve their country together, like lovers. At the end of the day, Baldwin chooses reciprocity, engagement, and understanding, painting an affective world in the context of racism and a history of antagonism.

God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time!

If you’re interested… also read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (heavily inflected with Baldwinian themes + uses the epistolary form of a letter to the younger generation) and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.

Orientalism, Edward Said

A definitive work in my intellectual journey. I first came across it in Sec 2 when I was doing a literature project (with Zhao!) comparing Western and Eastern fictional portrayals of Empress Cixi. Said’s concept changed my worldview. Before coming across his theory, it had never occurred to me that literature could be demonstrative and complicit in a larger power structure that produces knowledge, fictions history, and essentializes an entire region (what Said calls the Orient is the Middle and Near East; in my own thinking, I naturally extend it to Asia as well) with discursive dominance.

Two years later, the book surfaced again in another research project (with Tianyi!) investigating how the post-9/11 Bush Doctrine legitimized the War on Terror through rhetoric. Orientalism, I realized then, is still very much alive, employed in media and demagoguery and manifesting in political realities with real-world repercussions.

Orientalism can be discussed…as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.

According to Said, the West, or “the occident,” defines itself and strengthens its identity by producing an oppositional and premodern “orient.” The orient, then, functions as a sort of surrogate and even underground Other, as everything “other than” what the occident is. If the occident is modern, fluid, active, and masculine, the orient is backward, static, passive, and feminine. Orientalism, in short, exists for the west’s purpose — the occident authors, projects, entrenches, and disseminates an image of the orient so as to define itself.

It has been eight years since this book came into my life. From secondary school to JC to college, in countless papers, Said’s writings have shaped my own. As I write this, I’m hard-pressed to name another theoretical work more formative in my life than Orientalism.

If you’re interested… also look up techno-orientalism, what Roh et. al.’s anthology of the same name calls the “phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.” You can read my review of the Introduction to Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media below:

Another entertaining, incisive read on the techno-orient is Anne Anlin Cheng’s film review, The Ghost in the Ghost, in the LA Review of Books.

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Mae Ngai

Where does the “illegal alien” originate from? How has immigration policy changed over time alongside race? How does the nation-state evolve with the legal regime of citizenship, immigration restriction, and categories of racial difference?

Ngai looks at the U.S. In this book, she examines how national-origin, numerical quotas, expanding state authority, and changing notions of race (e.g. European versus non-European migrants) remapped not only the idea of “America” but also the nation’s territoriality and contiguous land borders. Ngai’s close reading of Supreme Court rulings such as United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), Ozawa v. United States (1922), and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) traces the logic of a legislative body over time, delineating its landmark moments and changing priorities of labor, geopolitical relations, and population census.

Immigration lies at the nexus between domestic processes and international empire. Demonstrated somewhat by Trump’s recent immigration order to restrict Chinese students and scholars, ideas of desirability, of exclusion, of legality, and of “alien” versus “citizen” are constantly shifting in service of the pressing political agenda of the hour. The subtle “racial hierarchy” underpinning the broader discourse on equality and rights (including voting rights) belies the unanswered question that Ngai unsettles and probes: How can a person be illegal, after all?

***

Currently reading mostly Chinese novels as well as Ready Player One. I’m a hermit, slow at replying text messages and away from my phone most days of the week. x

Stay safe, with love,

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on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a new feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I read, usually for class (and now also for leisure). Here are some of the books I’ve read since returning home from campus, during my hermit, 100-step count days inside the house. 

What’s in your library?

What do you read in your midnight hour?

What do you read when you’re in crisis and you’re afraid?

(questions posed by the inimitable Profé Carrasco)

outline rachel cusk

Outline, Rachel Cusk

FREAKING BRILLIANT! I started this on the plane back home and fittingly, the first chapter occurs on a flight. Following a writer who heads to Athens to teach a course on creative writing, the novel flits from a conversation with her seatmate on the plane to those she has with strangers, writers, and students in the city.

Often, I had to pause in the middle of reading just to underline the sentences that would leap off the page about anything: a piece of furniture, a waitress, the ocean, a dog, the back of a man. Cusk has a knack for spinning profound revelations about marriage, motherhood, or writing from the smallest of objects, which can hit you in the gut.

I suppose it’s a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated. It’s the basis of your faith and sometimes you doubt it, but you never renounce it because too much of your life stands on that ground.

His aged back seemed to maroon us both in our separate and untransfigurable histories.

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.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Koolaids, Rabih Alameddine

Koolaids, Rabih Alameddine

Carnivalesque romp through time and space! A book unlike a book. There is neither a plot nor a clear sense of whose head we are in. Instead, the novel is a pastiche of genres, vignettes, quips, scenes, religious texts, dialogue, emails, and diary entries about the HIV/AIDS crisis and the Lebanese Civil War at the tail-end of the 20th century. The metaphor of war and contagion is particularly resonant right now, amidst the pandemic of our times. Critics have dismissed this novel, but I think it provides a telling glimpse into those whose lives are engaged in a perpetual war against a virus. For the characters, death — social death, and actual death — is the pathos of everyday living because intimacy gains the violence of warfare. Are the parallels not uncanny?

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

Short but moving, with a brilliant title that grasps the soul of the book. Centered on the U.S.-Mexico immigration ‘crisis’, the slim book is about Luiselli’s experience working as a translator for child refugees at the New York immigration court. The forty questions the novel presents are drawn up by immigration attorneys but cannot encompass the complexity of the children’s lives. Yet, their responses determine whether they will be granted legal sanctuary in the U.S. or be repatriated to their old lives of horrific violence. The novel’s answer to the conundrum of interpretation — legal, cultural, narrative — is a reminder to all of us who search for neat answers and resolutions when wrapping our minds around a harrowing, ongoing crisis:

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

When narrative closure must be negotiated, then perhaps undocumented migrants and refugees are in no position to negotiate an end. They can only pray to arrive and to stay:

Before coming to the United States, I knew what others know: that the cruelty of its borders was only a thin crust, and that on the other side a possible life was waiting. I understood, some time after, that once you stay here long enough, you begin to remember the place where you originally came from the way a backyard might look from a high window in the deep of winter: a skeleton of the world, a tract of abandonment, objects dead and obsolete. And once you’re here, you’r ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the great theatre of belonging.

[…]

Why did you come here? I asked one little girl once.

Because I wanted to arrive.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

If you’re interested… read Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E. Anzaldúa; Fronteras Americanas by Guillermo Verdecchia.

The Great Derangement- Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh

In a moment when we are encountering the crisis of our own times, in a magnitude that seems to dwarf all that had come before, Ghosh’s treatise is a reminder that the looming threat of our time is climate change, lest we forget. 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.

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

While there are alternative modes of writing in dealing with climate change than the realist one that he presents, Ghosh is still remarkably prescient in diagnosing the representational challenges that climate change poses to our imagination. A seminal work.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

If you’re interested… read my Hist & Lit junior essay, “Reimagining the (Post)Human in the Age of the Anthropocene: the Cyborg Figure in Frankenstein and The Windup Girl,” which I’m happy to send to you ٩◔‿◔۶

Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez

Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez

(Please recommend to me your favorite memoirs, if you have any!! A character I’m currently writing is a ghostwriter, so I’m on a memoir reading streak.)

Impossible not to fall in love with the man and his life. Gabo’s memoir contains an imagination (and a language) so rich that it creates a world of its own.

Unexpectedly, Gabo’s entire life (and his fiction) pivots on the two-day trip with his mother to sell their childhood house. The memoir opens with that trip and goes on to his childhood, his education, his struggles as an emerging writer and journalist, the Barranquilla Group, the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, his influences, and his community. Parts of it gets heavy, especially with the exhaustive introductions of names and places, and yet, the moments of resonance between his real life and his fiction are captivating to stumble upon.

I recommend the first half of the memoir. His childhood bears a haunting, almost unbelievable resemblance to the world in One Hundred Years of Solitude. As Gabo points out in The Fragrance of Guava, a book of interviews, “All I wanted to do was to leave a literary picture of the world of my childhood which […] was spent in a large, very sad house with a sister who ate earth, a grandmother who prophesied the future, and countless relatives of the same name who never made much distinction between happiness and insanity.” How lucky we are that he found it irresistible not to put it onto the page.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

Chronicle of A Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel García Márquez

Compact, stunning novella on murder, complicity, and premonition in a town that’s like an open wound. Based on a true story that happened in Colombia, the novella gives us the ending in its title and on its opening pages: Santiago Nasar is murdered. In a reportage style (no doubt reminiscent of Gabo’s own training as a journalist), the narrator unravels a baffling murder that the whole town knew about and yet no one intervened in. The inevitable conclusion is secondary to the question of collective guilt and human intentions. No single person is guilty because everyone is. The real suspense is not the whodunnit but why those who could have saved him and wanted to simply did not.

I recall Marquez’s observation in his 1982 Nobel lecture, The solitude of Latin America:

A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.

Storytelling is always a second opportunity. To engage in the creation of opposite utopias when reality is disillusioning and truth constantly eludes. In interrogating our darkest sides, a master storyteller like Gabo saves all of our souls.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

***

What I’m currently (re)reading — links go to Goodreads: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Hungry Tide, Lost Children Archive, and Coin Locker Babies.

Stay safe, with love,

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on my desk: 1984, The Bluest Eye & more!

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a new feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I’ve read for the week, usually for class. This first installment covers some of the books I’ve read from week 2 to week 4 of Junior Spring. 

Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

An immediate classic. So incredibly fresh and vivid despite the years between us. I never did like Mr. Rochester (in Jane Eyre) growing up and this book does not redeem him. Rhys has created a backstory for the madwoman in the attic, who only appeared in brief glimpses in Eyre. Yet, the novel very much stands on its own, almost cannibalizing the original with its ferocious exploration of the Creoles in the Carribean. It’s not a retelling, but instead a creative translation across tropics, temporalities, and epistemologies — of a white woman growing up in Jamaica during the time of the British Empire. How does Antoinette become Bertha, locked up in the attic? The chambers of your mind will never be quiet while reading this.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

1984 George Orwell

1984, George Orwell

Can’t believe it took me 4087823 years to read this classic. This is one book that has seeped into our collective consciousness and been normalized — we think of Big Brother when we articulate surveillance; we think of Room 101 when we describe a torture chamber, we now think thoughtcrime as not very surprising at all (politically unorthodox thoughts). The recent past, and even pockets of the present, is in a sense ‘Orwellian’. The policing of thought, interestingly, is tied to the policing of desire — of sex, of the body, of love. The subsuming of love and reproduction under the socialist agape of the state abhors us instinctively. Yet, Winston and Julia’s supposed ‘love story’ is never quite about love. It’s a temporary digression in desire that is rectified. The stark, satirical ending is a diagnosis of dictatorships — every authoritarian regime has power, but they want it to be bolstered by authority (which has to be gained). Even when totally secure of power, there is that eternal fragility and insecurity towards achieving ‘one body, one nation, one mind’ and the constant use of the language of ‘for the people’. At least, 1984 strips its authoritarian regime bare of any pretension or instinct for amelioration — the contradictions are there for all too see. Elsewhere, in real life, the masquerade goes on.

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

a mercy Toni Morrison

A Mercy, Toni Morrison

A powerful story of suffering — as bond or bondage? — and wilderness, told through Florens, a young black girl enslaved in the early years of European settlement in America — 1682 when “Virginia was still a mess.”

The criticism of the capitalist apparatus of slavery is subtle but impossible to ignore.

There was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at [Ortega’s plantation] and a remote labour force in Barbados. Right? Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars.

The Puritan task of an errand into wilderness also takes shape through the stories of the women, each struggling to keep their internal wilderness restrained. But I’m left thinking, what is ‘wilderness’ in the first place? It’s nature and what was there before. Or is it very much a colonial construction, an attempt at legibility, of rhetorical erasure to justify their settlement (it’s raw, it’s clean, it’s up for grabs!), a patriarchal way of control and of domestication?

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕

The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Painful to read. In the first few pages, Morrison tells you the entire story. And yet, we cannot help but read on, driven by the urgency and rawness of her language. It’s about a little black girl who just desperately, fervently wanted blue eyes. The desire is a sign of an internalized inability to recognize her own personhood, worth, and beauty. One thinks of racism in quiet, insidious ways: reifying the violence of the normative subject in the West (Pecola is “the good subject”). But also in terrifying ways: the cosmology of whiteness is still ever-present — I wonder if the pursuit of certain beauty standards reflects that even for myself. We could call it, as Profé Carrasco does, the cosmological conviction of racism:

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Dark Princess W. E. B. Du Bois

Dark Princess, W. E. B. Du Bois

Part romance, part quest, Dark Princess is unlike anything else I’ve read. At times allegorical, often a blending of genres, it meshes sharp critique of local politics (flushed by money), of racism, and most piercingly, of the color line within the color line: peoples who are oppressed, or even with the same oppressor, will not understand their oppression in the same way. How do you form an ethical community of resistance across faultlines (class, cultural, racial)? What does it mean to construct international solidarity when there is an uneven experience of violence? Even now, the chasm exists: the cosmopolitan elite seeking to liberate the masses despite widening gulfs.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

A Woman Named Solitude Andre Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude, André Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude reads like part magical realism, part fairytale, part oral tradition. Yet, every once so often, historical dates and figures rupture the poetic shimmer of the language and we are reminded: all that we are reading — atrocities, revolts, humans treated like cattle, the cosmological upending of an entire continent’s lives — is in fact reality, or truth. The novel starts with “Once upon a time, on a strange planet, there was a little black girl named Bayangumay” (1). While the reference to “the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto” on the last page of the epilogue subtly ties two human holocausts together, Schwarz-Bart does it so much more sparingly and movingly than Philips.

The narrative distance (a detachment that’s no less passionate) brings a certain universality and oneness of human suffering to the story of Bayangumay and later, Rosalie who will metamorphose into Solitude. As Sarah De Mul terms it, the “forgotten holocausts” of the world in the case of this novel zoom into the brief span of years when the Africans enslaved in the Carribean vacillated between freedom and return to slavery, under the political machinations and Anglo-French rivalry of the metropole.

Caught between her yellow body and her black heart, Solitude is not just one “whose nation no longer exists, whose village has been destroyed and whose ancestors are dead” (64), but also one who loses her mother at a young age, abandoned with a yearning for Africa and Man Bobette’s secret. That Rosalie grows into Solitude, with her soulless eyes and her laughter is a soft yet powerful resistance. Her laugh — alongside the guttural laughs of other women, from her mother to the Congo woman Euphrosine — unsettles. In a land of “lies” (81) and “madness” (77), ruled by white men and (to a less extent) women, the unsettling nature of laughter represents a particular discursive contract that subverts — a moment of irrational recognition, rehearsed unexpectedness; it brings to mind Freud’s theory on jokes and their relation to the unconscious. In the face of such violence, Solitude mows over white men — surprised at the blood on her own hands — but ultimately, in the face of death, can only laugh.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

The Nature of Blood Carl Phillips

The Nature of Blood, Carl Phillips

The many different strands of The Nature of Blood reminds me of what Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes called ‘multinarratives’ in a multiracial and polycultural universe and also one particular mode of Friedman’s three juxtapositional comparisons: collage. Stephen, Eva, Othello, the Jews of Portobuffole, and Malka’s stories are put side by side, each in its own distinctive context, but read together for their in/commensurability. The form of the novel itself refrains from the prescriptive and the didactic. Instead, the collage of narratives across time and space presented to us puts the autonomy in the hands of the reader. What rises to the surface when we see things side by side, whether we choose to make that comparison ourselves, and what constellations/collisions we end up holding in our hands is ours. The novel is suggestive.

What I really liked about the novel is its almost palimpsestic nature of time, which reflects the traumatic nature of remembering, of repetition, of unknowability. The narrative time frame defamiliarizes known stories (I, for one, didn’t realize that Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was an intertextual piece) — for instance, Othello remains nameless throughout, and his own observations of Venice (full of “enchanting promises” as well as “betrayal”) flesh out his diasporic subjectivity which fleshes out all the invisible and unsaid blanks within Shakespeare’s play. Othello’s inability to see the parallels between him and the Jews living in the ghetto is made all the more stark given the coeval story of the Jews of Portobuffole happening in Venice. Similarly, I found myself spotting the ironic, painful symmetry in Malka and Eva’s experiences — the feelings of being dehumanized into animals (“monkey-people” for Eva; “cattle” for Malka); their flashes of first-person confession that drowns amidst their silencing within the larger society.

In their respective experiences of dislocation, trauma, dehumanization, and othering, there is sameness in their difference, and difference in their sameness.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔

***

Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts? Do you like this new feature? ٩◔‿◔۶

Lots of love,

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From A Foodie: California Dreamin’

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

Before you start reading this post, first play this song: California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & the Papas.

Looking for, you guessed it, good food.

Los Angeles is like an idea. There’s Hollywood and its entire edifice (Disney franchises, Universal Pictures, Walk of Fame, the Academy Awards, and all that celebrity fanfare). And then the films I associate with all that: The Mummy, The Sound of Music, La La Land, Pretty Woman… The list goes on.

LA is supposedly the city of stars. The idea, I think, is lived out better in the imagination than in the concrete. The real Hollywood Boulevard is like a backwater town, with dusty streets and gaggles of tourists. The Dolby Theatre — without the red carpet, flashing lights, and yelling paparazzi — looks rather nondescript. The most powerful part of Hollywood is not what I can touch. It lies in its promise, which has had a hold on the global imagination for generations.

Selina Xu Hollywood Walk of Fame

Some of that creativity can be found in the food. On my last day in LA, my family wandered over to The Broad art museum from the Grand Central Market. On my first day in LA, we went to another food festival, Smorgasburg. The former had some tourists and the latter was almost filled with local crowds. Full of local vendors selling food presented with unique artistic flair, both were melting pots (side note: I can never use this phrase non-ironically since reading Israel Zangwill’s eponymous play) of cultures and cuisines all in one bustling place.

The Broad also featured some of the most famous and trendy names in contemporary art like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and the one and only Yayoi Kusama (I remember when Kusama’s exhibition came to Singapore and suddenly her polka dots and yellow pumpkins were all over my feed; I ended up skipping her work this time since there was a two-hour wait).

So, here’s a look at some of the most interesting local foods I tasted in LA, interspersed with some cool art. 

Shrimp Daddy (Smorgasburg LA)

Hawaiian garlic butter shrimp inside a bright pineapple boat with macaroni and rice. Tasted good, but not as good as it looked. Sadly, since the pineapple was hollowed out, I couldn’t eat it. There was a tiny serving of some pineapple chunks at the head of the boat, which lightened the palate between bites of the crispy, heavy shrimp.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Shrimp Daddy

Lobsterdamus (Smorgasburg LA)

A whole lobster YUM! My mom and I cleaned it off every last scrap of meat. Grilled on the spot with Cajun sauce, it was hot and chewy just like good lobster meat. For my mom, who enjoys eating from the shell instead of prepared meat, the experience itself was a plus. Very fresh.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Lobsterdamus

Blue Plate Oysterette (Santa Monica Pier)

Two lobster rolls, one with fries, one with macaroni and cheese. Fried calamari. Very good crab cake! SUPER FRESH SEAFOOD. Which made sense. That’s honestly all one asks for at a restaurant by the beach.

According to my parents, who each took care of a lobster roll, the bread was very delicious (and more unforgettable than the lobster meat?!).

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette

But, most of all, phenomenal key lime pie!!! However, I’m biased because I love lime/lemon-flavored desserts. Still, the BEST key lime pie I’ve eaten.

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette Key Lime Pie

When I was looking at the Jeff Koons pieces at The Broad, which included huge balloon dogs that were made from stainless steel and then coated in translucent colors, I thought about his famous Lobster.

Jeff Koons Lobster.jpg

He said:

I’ve always enjoyed balloon animals because they’re like us. We’re balloons. You take a breath and you inhale, it’s an optimism. You exhale, and it’s kind of a symbol of death.

Isn’t that sort of like the entire affair of eating? The tension between interior life and exterior life, like an energy, like a dialogue. Open up two palms towards the sky: on one hand is what we consume; on the other hand, how long we’ve got to live.

Sari Sari Store (Grand Central Market)

A Filipino concept store. In Filipino, sari sari translates into ‘whatever.’ Out of the various savory rice bowls (silog) on the menu, I ordered the Pinoy BBQ bowl which features garlic pork ribs, garlic rice, atsara (pickled papaya), and a runny fried egg. The rice was SO GOOD. Almost as good as the Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, but not quite yet. So simple, but so filling. 😇

Selina Xu Sari Sari

Glad that the egg I ate was not the ones in the painting below. Presenting to you: Joe, who seems to be frying eggs innocuously. But, look at his eye sockets. What a startling resemblance. 👀

Eyes and Eggs JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT

Eyes and Eggs by JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT.

I ended up seeing a lot of references to food hanging on the walls of the museum. (Possibly because I was hungry.)

Campbell's Soup Can ANDY WARHOL

Campbell’s Soup Can by ANDY WARHOL

Happiness Capsule by The Base (Smorgasburg LA)

Blueberry charcoal base with cold brewed tea in a huge jar that reads Bee Free (not a spelling mistake). No artificial sweeteners, so I was expecting something quite light. First sip and that was the case. After shaking the jar and almost dropping it, the drink got much more even in its sweetness. Would happily drink this every day.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg The Base Happiness Capsule

Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner

On the road back to LA from Las Vegas, we turned off the freeway into Yermo — a town in the Mojave Desert — to stop by a small, 1950s-style diner with American classics such as meatloaf & chicken-fried steak on the menu. The waitresses were all dressed in turquoise and pink with vintage-looking white hats; there were a bunch of men in uniform munching on huge burgers at the table beside us; the walls were plastered with photos of Elvis (who also had a life-sized doll in a fortune-teller glass box). Definitely worth a stop if you’re looking for a roadside diner near the Interstate 15.

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's 50's Diner

More interesting than the food was the nostalgic interior. The food was quite forgettable (I got cheeseburger and fries), so I didn’t even bother taking a photo. Loved the quirkiness, however. For instance, guess who I saw in the women’s bathroom? : )

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's Women's Bathroom

James Dean, how dare you!?

***

Out of everything I ate over my seven days in LA/Las Vegas/in between, these are some of the most curious or memorable. They light up my memories of Southern California. Therein lies the magic of good food. They soften your eyes in reminiscence, sharpen some hazy outline of a feeling, or illuminate an ordinary day with a silver lining. They are interwoven with the fabric of the city and how I taste the contours of its syllables on my tongue.

Finally, ending with this.

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains TAKASHI MURAKAMI

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains by TAKASHI MURAKAMI.

From New York with Love,

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