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

🌟 07/10/2019 🦄

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now I’ve met her in person!!!

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

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

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

Selina Xu Amanda Lee Koe

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

Oops it’s 1:33AM. GOOD NIGHT.

Lots of love,

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海外华侨女孩:金庸和我的小故事

Jin Yong

Remembering Louis Cha (Jin Yong), my favorite author, in the language I read him in. Today, he died at age 94. May he rest in peace.

今天,就让我难过一下吧。

六岁那年,爸爸几乎每晚都把我拉去公园散步。傍晚的树叶和微风很浪漫,是个听故事和讲故事的好时候。当时的我已经喜欢上了读书,但是天天手上捧着的都是西方读物:英国的艾尼德.布莱顿(Enid Blyton)、美国的《神探南茜》(Nancy Drew)、《甜蜜谷》(Sweet Valley Kids)系列,以及一箱又一箱的外国入门侦探小说。书本中的主人公虽然年龄比我长了几岁,但是都陌生的要死。他们需要喝下午茶,敢用姓名称呼他们的父母,出门要围围巾。

有一天我们又在绕圈的时候,爸爸通知我:“既然我们这几天散步你不愿意给我讲故事,那就我来。我来给你讲讲我最喜欢的。”

他选择了《射雕英雄传》。

说实话,一开始,我是很排斥他这个选择的。对于一个只背过唐诗、论语和三字经的我来说,中国文化是枯燥无味的条条框框。爸爸讲的那个故事的开端是一个臭道士,场景是一个年代久远的乡村,里面有一群叔叔阿姨天天在打架。我很不耐烦地威胁爸爸让他讲一个有公主和王子的故事,结果他告诉我这个故事里会有我这辈子都会想要的爱情。

他说的没错。

就这样,爸爸把这个故事的蓝图在我幼小的脑海里展开。我从不稀罕到走火入魔般地着迷。六岁那年,人生之三大难题如下:降龙十八掌到底是怎么打的?爸爸为什么不是桃花岛主?我应该到哪里去找武功秘籍好能称霸武林?但是,故事太长了,爸爸后来工作很忙,没有时间跟我在公园绕圈。我便开始去烦他,泪眼汪汪地求他继续把故事讲完。

他一指书架,对我说道:“都在那里,你自己看。”

结果是,我苦苦地啃了几个月,也没读懂。《射雕英雄传》分为了四册,我走到哪里都带着一本,搞得母亲对爸爸颇有微词。书中世界之丰富超过了我之前所读过的一切。里面形形色色的人和我有着类似的姓名,一样对长辈又敬又爱,年轻却充满了超越时代的侠肝义胆和令人动容的儿女情长。

后来,我慢慢长大了,却年复一年于这江湖流连忘返。在金庸的文字中,我似乎逐渐能从见自己,到见天地,却至今还是无法见众生。

现在,我二十岁了。我在新西兰出生,新加坡长大,美国读大学。从小到大,我在学府里读得最多的是西方文学,现在在哈佛主修的专业之一也是英语文学。至今,我读了荷马(Homer)、莎士比亚(Shakespeare)和简·奥斯汀(Jane Austen),也读了萨曼·鲁西迪(Salman Rushdie)、托妮·莫里森(Toni Morrison)和J.K.罗琳(J. K. Rowling)这些当代文学的泰山北斗。但是,至今,再也没有一个作家能让我如此留恋他笔下的世界,那些人的刹那芳华、仁义与柔情。

白马带着她一步步的回到中原。白马已经老了,只能慢慢的走,但终是能回到中原的。江南有杨柳、桃花,有燕子、金鱼…… 汉人中有的是英俊勇武的少年,倜傥潇洒的少年…… 但这个美丽的姑娘就像古高昌国人那样固执:“那都是很好很好的,可是我偏不喜欢。”

咱们就此别过,人生离合,亦复如斯。

金庸就是金庸。 四海列国,千秋万代,也就只有一个他呀。

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After the Darkness, A Meadow of Books

The number of papers I’ve written this semester: 

7.

Words that appeared in my first 10-page screenplay*

Wong Kar-wai. Temple. Claypot. Kant. Fortune-teller. White peach tart. Mahjong. Wikipedia. Red Mansion Dream. The Gods are real.

*If you are intrigued and would like to read it in exchange for giving me your genuine critique and constructive feedback, please reach out to me. (´・ω・`)

The number of times I went to the gym: 

8.

Where I’m going for Thanksgiving Break:

Cambridge (UK) & London (hello my loves)!!!

The number of sit-down exams I will have during Finals: 

0.

WHAT? It is, fortunately, happily, emphatically, true.

Correlatively, the total number of pages I will have to write in my final papers:

41 to 48 pages.

(A 20-page screenplay, a 6-8 page Global Fictions paper, a 7-10 page literary analysis or creative project, and an 8-10 page paper on Kant.)

The number of days till I come back home (i.e. fly back to Singapore): 

40.

(In fact, I won’t even be on campus during Finals Week (or Reading Period) because I’m flying off on the last day of class, which is December 5th. I shall lovingly labor over my papers in Singapore.)

A jumble of things on my mind: 

Unpaid. internships. Concentration dilemmas. (ಥ﹏ಥ) Career choices. “Don’t idealize or romanticize suffering.” Screenwriting. Grad school? Techno-orientalism, postcolonialism, literature & culture & race. Sit in an alcove and read and read and read until I grow cracks and crumble like moth wings. Do novels get written under deadlines? Do I want a creative senior thesis? I want to read big, fat, difficult, swollen, convoluted books that I will never read again. But, I don’t want to take a class only on Shakespeare, or Poetry, or early British literature. I should do Hist & Lit. The fantasy of intimacy with the language is increasingly falling apart. I want a critical lens, to explore, to challenge, to immerse myself in the contemporary, not the old, white, Western canon that has nothing to do with a 21st-century Singaporean-Chinese girl grappling with globalization, who wants to enter a conversation with writers who deal in that vein of global imagination. 

Here’s an Easter egg—a random snippet I typed on my phone in class because I was hungry and homesick and harboring within me a dim sum-shaped hole: 

The first thing I hear when the Play begins is the flurry of Cantonese chatter. Flying across the room like darts and then bouncing on the cloud of soft affection, blood ties, subtle enmity and piping hot early morning news Fresh off the Tongue making rounds.

Xuan, beautiful, a head taller and cantonese-speaking, whispers into my ear, with a glint in her eye. That short fat man, Xuan says, with a hiccup, as she downs another gulp of sweet white coconut milk, does pharmaceuticals and always loses in mahjong, probably intentionally when he plays with my Ma. Listening, my mouth forms the shape of an ‘o’.

No one else notices us collapsing into giggles, or my wobbly chopsticks dropping the prawn puff beneath the table, or us imitating the adults while chewing, or me eating three times The Amount of Golden Buns that Mami said I was allowed to.

The table is strewn with dumplings with different skin, different colors, different meat textures, with brown baskets of steaming hot pastries half the size of my tiny palm, with sweet chicken claws and spicy carrot cake, hard noodles in cups and soft eggs in half cut shells, and the iced mango sago melting over my tongue like cold cold honey.

***
After a brief patch of darkness, of indecision, of agonizing back-and-forths between two concentrations that may seem indistinguishable to the observer (English with its early British literature and poetry requirements and the glowing possibility of writing a novel in a Creative thesis, and History & Literature with its incredible freedom of charting my own course and piecing together a singular academic focus from an array of departments), of self-interrogation, of asking myself again and again ‘What do I want out of college?’, of grasping the shovel to dislodge already fixed aspirations, of negotiating the dilemma of studying the canon versus what I’m actually intellectually passionate about, of self-doubt, of my aversion to certain facets of the English language, of my fraught relationship with writing…

I see that there is always a meadow of books—my green light, an intellectual lodestar. It eludes me sometimes, but it’s an ancient instinct from which I may stray but always never wander far.

My favorite books that I read in class this semester: 

 

 

Lots of love,

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