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,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

22

hi dear friends and readers, today i turn 22!!!!

today i feel very very loved and very very blessed. thank you to each of you — you know who you are — who have made it so special. i’ve waited seven years to play this song (so let this be the soundtrack to this blog post):

(taylor swift’s 22)

this day has turned out entirely different from what i expected. this morning, i woke up to my mom blaring a birthday song remix and dancing Zumba moves beside my bed. then, my dad sent me a video montage he made — it started with the airport farewell in August 2017 when i was hugging my best friends goodbye, as i was about to head into an entirely new chapter of my life far away from home. i remember crying when the plane soared into the darkness, a forest of lights diminishing far below, thinking anxiously about the weight of distance, the receding intimacy of everything i had grown up with, and all that the husk of ‘harvard’ promised. would i like my roommates? would i make good friends? would harvard ever match up to the years of yearning?

in the blink of an eye, i’m almost done with college. incredibly, my roommates have become my best friends, i have found friendships that are too precious not to last for life, and harvard no longer seems like an amorphous mass suffused with uncertainty, overblown with desire, and untouchable. instead, it has become the most unexpected incubator of ambitions, the wildest adventure, and the best house of minds. harvard has become a second home and, without doubt, the past three years are some of the best in my 22 years. (on a side note, thinking about this coming fall, i love my time there so much that i would hate to spend my last year far away from the people and energy that makes harvard, harvard)

and somehow, three years later, my friendships from home have stood the test of time. distance hasn’t changed anything. i am so immensely grateful to have so many constants in my life — people who i have grown alongside throughout our most awkward, idealistic, and undaunted years, whose friendships ground me as life throws us up in the air, who i will always hug close to heart. i’ve known some of you for 8, 10, 13 years. others, i’ve only known for 3 years, but i feel like i’ve known you for a lifetime. here’s to many more decades and more memories!! ✨

to my dearest Zhao, who put together a video of birthday wishes from my closest friends that made me cry, THANK YOU! I LOVE YOU. 22 is unforgettable because of what you did. words don’t suffice. thank you for for your bangin’ production skills (better than hollywood), for bringing together people i love across screens and timezones, and for loving me the way you do ❤️

back to my dad’s video montage: it ended with this family photo at the Changi airport, the blocky letters of DEPARTURE looming in the background. for the past three years, every moment spent with my parents has been transient. i was like a bird in flight, stopping to rest in a nest but leaving it behind again and again. on the heels of past birthdays came farewells at airports and in hotel lobbies, as I went off in pursuit of some semblance of adult life, eager to forge independence away from my parents.

today has none of the urgency that laced past birthdays. the past few months in a pandemic — like a clearing in the woods of days — has taught me a new relationship with time. i feel time pass gently, without burn. i feel grateful to the quarantine/circuit breaker, in a twist, for giving me treasured months with my parents. our family is finally all in one place, no goodbyes on the horizon (yet) and feeling the days wash over us with no countdowns. 谢谢最亲爱的爸比妈咪,包容我的任性,尊重我的梦想,鞭策我的成长,并给予我最可贵的陪伴。您们的爱让我勇敢地去探索世界,自由地选择想要的人生,并始终相信自己。因为您们,我看到了什么是理想与奋斗,什么是爱情最美好的样子。长大了的我只想像您们一样潇洒、善良、浪漫、热血,坚持自我。愿二十二岁的我依旧能让您们骄傲,不辜负您们的信任。您们是最伟大的父母。爱您们!!! 🐲🐯🐵

since the semester ended two weeks ago, i have been in a state of torpor, mostly indulging in leisure. i love idleness (and am a proud proponent of its value in creative realms) but i also know everything is only good in moderation. for the first time in a long while, i now have full autonomy over my time with no external structure or authority. i have no one to answer to. i have no goal that is imposed; i have to articulate it in action. the first few months of being 22 is free for me to define. i’m honestly not that great in terms of self-discipline (procrastination has been the scourge of my life), so needless to say, my biggest fear is that i will emerge at the other side of summer without having done anything. my public goal, stated here, is to draft another 60,000 words for my code-named work in progress, IDOL 2047. 🌝 this means 20,000 words per month from june to august. i will be tracking my progress on this blog. 💪 i’m thankful to have the space and time to think and write. 希望我对得起自己!

to God, thank you for always guiding me with love, for surrounding me with people who inspire me, and for teaching me how much i don’t know but giving me the pen to write an answer on life’s canvas. because of You, i’ve realized that everything in my life happens for a reason. when so many things are spinning out of control, thank You for giving me the strength, the peace, and the faith to carry on. i submit myself to Your wisdom and arrangement. in these times of trial, when i see one set of footprints in the sand, i know You are carrying me.

to each of you who read this blog, thank you for stopping by, staying, and breathing in my words, however raw or unembellished. this is my 84th post. not including this post, i have cumulatively written 88,665 words on this blog. (the length of a novel!) i can’t imagine having this much to say about anything, and yet, time works its magic. each snippet, easily forgotten in memory’s dark chambers, are preserved in this tiny corner of the internet. this blog is my time capsule. i have never persisted in writing anything for this long, neither diary nor blog (the last one lasting for 880 days). thank you for being part of my life’s stories. x

from 22-year-old me, with love,

[Story] Third Space

Author’s Note: 4 photos, 4 vignettes! I’ve typed the scenes out just the way they entered my head when these images first came alive, each with their own stories.

The title draws inspiration from Prof Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the third space — disjunctive, hybrid, in-between spaces beyond borders that make ambivalent structures we take as fixed or homogenizing. Happy reading!

First came the white tents.

People stared at it as they passed – evening joggers, drivers from the safety of their vehicles, families out for fresh air.

Kids tugged at their parents, asking what they were. Not the pasar malam, the parents said. Not void deck weddings. Not funerals. But close. Incubators of death.

Yellow metal barricades fenced the perimeters. Unused turquoise-colored portable toilets stood at the side. When the wind came, the white flaps billowed, their insides still empty. Behind the sentry-like rows of tents was an utterly different skyline – a sleek patina of glass and metal, the silhouette of skyscrapers thrusting their fingers into the blue sky. They stared down at the eerie circus waiting for its opening.

She glanced at the tents on her commute to and from the office. Even as the city ground to a halt, her work in the essential services had not stopped. But she had no complaints. The city was kind.

From the moment when she had first heard about an infectious disease from her parents in Sichuan – 3 deaths, Hubei, seafood wet market – to watching the contagion swallow entire cities amidst chunjie, she had felt the choking sense of fear and the baptismal touch of luck. Lucky that she was out. Free from a land with so much pain and suffering. Lucky that she had left ten years ago without looking back and built a new life. Lucky that her family, especially her two-year-old, was safe in a city that was clean, efficient, and treated its citizens well. Lucky even now, with hundreds of cases a day, that her citizen husband flying back from the UK could be quarantined for free at the Shangri-La on the beachfront.

But these white tents.

From afar, she had watched the virus tear a hole through fabrics she once thought were impenetrable. She watched it happen like an ant would watch a crumbling sandcastle, perched on a nearby rock. Slowly the castle had begun to collapse, an invisible tide encroaching it from within. She watched as the rest of the world drew moats, fortified their borders, and quarantined its particles. No one thought the tide would hit them. They called it names, traced its causes to reasons of ethnicity, and hid behind porous walls.

But the ant had originated from the sandcastle. Although she was now no longer a member of the castle, she could not erase her origins. She had shared the secret shame that her people were bearing as the rest of the world blamed them for the tide. She had felt the flare of indignity and anger at the racism, the hypocrisy, the myopia.

Now, she stared at the white tents that were to house this city’s other. White tents that were to hide its ugly truth. An ugly truth that breathed in the city’s cultivated oblivion and the complicity of its citizens. An ugly truth, which now exposed in daylight, was to be sanitized and belatedly cloaked in folds of purity.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible, she thought. But the white tents paraded and displayed their bargain in the open. This was Omelas, but she didn’t know how to walk away.

***

First comes the aperitif.

The man stares out of the window at the roiling blue and absent-mindedly says thank you as a glass of ruby red Campari is silently placed before him by a brown hand.

“What day is it?” his wife asks across the table, fanning herself.

“Seventy-nine,” he grunts. “We haven’t felt land for weeks.”

“But we’re finally docking today, aren’t we? I’m running out of deodorant,” she says, “and the electric toothbrush charger isn’t working. It has been a nightmare.”

It has been. He agrees. From flushing the toilet to the rocketing wi-fi bill as they scour the internet for news of the pandemic, the past few weeks have been the ultimate test of their thirty-six-year marriage. When the cruise had left Genoa, the world was peaceful. There was some unknown pneumonia in a Chinese city he had never heard of. At Cape Verde, all was good. At Brazil, it was business as usual. By the time they reached Chile, cruise ships were in the news. A large outbreak had happened on a cruise that docked in Japan. After they left Pitcairn and started drifting, he realized that their “cruise of a lifetime” was hitting bumps.

He speaks between bites of the seafood cocktail, “Damn this Chinese virus. Good thing we’ve banned them from coming in. Now if only our government will get rid of all the Muslims and Syrians. Expel them all.”

His wife stops picking at the octopus carpaccio and leans forward to whisper, “I hear it’s because the Chinese eat bats.”

As he is finishing his poached pear and his wife her baked Alaska, the intercom crackles. The captain’s announcement is not well-received at their table.

“We will be refueling and resupplying in Fremantle – not disembarking,” said the captain in his heavy Italian accent. “This is a technical stop and unfortunately, no one will be allowed off the ship. Rest assured, all passengers and crew on board are well and we will continue along our scheduled itinerary.”

His wife’s face clouds over. Like all husbands, he knows what happens when his wife’s estrogen levels fall. But surprisingly, the storm passes over. Maybe it’s the red wine. She gets up from her seat and beckons. “At least let’s get some fresh air on the top deck,” she says, her hand lightly touching the camera hanging around her neck. “And look at land.”

They lumber to the lobby and head to the top deck with its full view of the dock. The blue sky is dotted with patchy, sheet-like wisps of clouds, looking like his weathered jeans. The next thing he notices are the police cars. Police? Why are the police here? There are uniformed officials patrolling the gangway. They are too far to see clearly but he spots bulks in their arms, the size of toothpicks from a distance, like guns.

A sudden burst of noise bubbles up, staccato-like shouts puncturing the hum of the ship’s engine and the sound of the waves. He pulls at his wife’s sleeves.

“Hey, honey, watch this,” he says.

A small crowd has gathered at the dockside, holding huge signs. Many are old people. They are Australians, in sunglasses, standing resolutely under the sun. He squints.

GO HOME.

STAY AWAY.

GET OUT OF OUR COUNTRY.

He takes a step back as though he has been stung. The heat and the smell of sea salt tinged with sewerage nauseates. A coldness courses through his veins and yet, he feels that his skin is burning. Burnt raw. Or is it cracking? He doesn’t know. All he can think of in this moment is how they could say this to people like him. How dare they?

Beside him, his wife is still fanning herself in the shade and asking, “What are they saying? Can you read the tiny letters?”

He opens his mouth but no words come out.

***

First comes the self.

He walks down the same carpeted corridors, the chandelier hot and heavy over his head like a sentence about to be dropped.

The air is cold and dry but he knows he is sweating. The back of his shirt tingles. So does his throat. Is it an irritation? It builds up through his throat and propels outwards into a cough. Hurriedly, he pulls down his mask and pops a Ricola into his mouth. Did his lip touch his glove? He sucks on its sweetness like a drowning man clamoring for oxygen. Imprinting its shape against the roof of his mouth, he feels coolness lace his tongue. Ah, better.

When will they give him another mask?

He knocks on the door, E101. He should just leave the meal outside. Would they complain? Yes, they would. “The passenger is king.” It’s drummed into him. They always have questions. They pummel him with frightened eyes and demanding tones and then try to conceal it with a thank-you. Thank you for risking your life to serve mine.

The door opens. It’s a white woman, the wrinkles on her face like lines drawn with a black marker under the garish light. He looks at her ruddy cheeks, her lashes thin and transparent under the light, and her Santa Clara University t-shirt. An American most probably.

“How are you doing, ma’am. Thank you for your patience.” He hands her the appetizer.

“It’s later than yesterday,” she says, “but thank you. Can we get more bottled water?”

“I don’t have any with me now. That okay? My colleague is coming later with the main course, drinks, and utensils.”

“We’ve been asking and asking—”

He wants to tell her that she can boil her own water the way he does, huddled in a windowless cabin shared with another person six decks below. Mess hall buffet laid out in the open, shared toilets, plates that are reused. She can bless the gods that she has fresh air and TV and three meals a day prepared, delivered, and cleaned by people like him, Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and—

The woman coughs. A wheeze. She turns her body inward.

He watches it unfold in slow motion. Each cough hits a nail into his frame. He digs his toes, holds his breath, and musters his body. He manages not to physically recoil.

“Excuse me,” rasps the woman, who closes the door.

He nods and half bows. People on this ship are going to die. One by one. He sees their faces briefly as doors open and close in a clockwork sequence. At least one of them will not be here tomorrow. Maybe more. On and on he goes. The corridor covers the length of the ship. The doors stretch out ominously before him like cards. Seventy-two more. He grabs the handle of the trolley and pushes. His palms are clammy in the gloves but he will not take them off. Maybe it’ll be me.

When it is all over he heads back down to the bottom of the ship. Down and down and down he goes. Past the empty lobbies and the chandeliers that hurt his eyes, past the occasional glimpse of the ocean, past the grand suites, suites, mini-suites, doubles, deluxe, interiors, past the hallways with exposed piping, and into the belly of the beast.

No one wants to play with life, he thinks. Back in his cabin, he scrubs his hands in hot water until they hurt. The flesh of his palm is pink. Life on the sea sounded romantic, like a movie. “I get to travel the world,” he tells friends back home. “And I wait tables at a fancy restaurant with ocean views.” It’s like a dream, he used to say. True, the hours are tough (and tougher now) and he has to be away from home nine months at a time.

But this – on a ship with three thousand people, where the virus stalks and floats unseen like a ghost, where they are exiled from land tantalizingly close, where he has to work to protect and serve the rich people when death looms – is a nightmare. A prison. Why is he sacrificing his life when no one is protecting him?

He has to protect himself.

All of a sudden, he knows what he must do. He rehearses it in his head, holds his phone up, and begins speaking. A video message. He starts over again. After nine tries, he gets a smooth take.

He introduces himself and his job. On the screen is a man who is asking for protection. It’s him but unfamiliar. He has never spoken up like this before but this is for his life. He stumbles over his words:

“We need help. We need extra manpower from the Japanese authority or from different authorities who can come and help us. The virus somewhere in the ship but the crew must continue working and cannot leave. Yes, we are ready to work all the time but only when the environment we are working in is safe. Right now, we don’t feel safe. Every day, the number has been increasing and we are scared for our lives. On the first day of the quarantine, there were ten infected patients, but now it has reached up to 218. Very soon we will all be infected.”

He swallows and presses on, “I’m not sure if I carry the virus. None of the crew has been checked. We don’t know why the passengers are being quarantined but not the crew. They have been quarantined since day one. We, crew members, have been working and serving. Even now, there are about 1,000 of us who are still working and not isolated.”

He stares right into the camera. Inside his head, he is praying. This part is the most important – the lifeboat: “My family and friends back home are praying day and night that we can come home safe. Please somehow save us as soon as possible, before it’s too late. I want to tell the government of India, Modi-ji, please bring us back home safely.”

Will he lose his job? He is, after all, breaking protocol. Cautiously, he ends the video with a hedge: “I do love my job and my company, I don’t have any complaints, I just want to feel safe.” I just want to feel safe.

What’s the point of following the protocol when he doesn’t know if he will live? When the tides of history hit, no one can remain dry. He can only pray that he stays above water. When the virus has engulfed cities, he is but a speck that wants refuge. He is six thousand kilometers away from home, with people from fifty other countries, but reality tells him that they are not all equal. They are upstairs, he is down, down at the bottom.

He will not accept it.

His fingers dance across the screen, like punching the buttons for SOS. The video is posted. He exhales.

***

First came the rumors after Chinese New Year.

Just a bad flu season. Somewhere in China. Nobody thought much about it but he noticed the Chinese workers murmuring amongst themselves.

One of them was Lu, his body golden and glistening in the humid heat. The air warmed whenever he came close. Lu, whose name required the pout of lips to push out the tender syllable. Lu, who had once crossed over to the other side to offer him a swab of medicinal oil – a cool stroke on his rough skin – when he bruised his leg slipping in the shower. Friendships were tentative magnets, impossible from a distance – each country, each language, each color in its own orbit – but he leaned into Lu, feeling the shifts in air pressure, the pull of a foreign body, and the willing surrender of his own as it went limp.

They didn’t communicate through broken English, hand signs, or pictures. Their language was one of objects and touch. A can of Coca-Cola, flavored lips under the rain tree in the dark. A squirt of toothpaste, a quick flirtation of hands. A clothes hanger, a fumble of fabric behind damp towels. Two minutes and forty-three seconds left on the phone card, fourteen hours and thirteen minutes apart. They lived in different rooms, worked on separate sites, each with their own people. But their dizzying dance imprinted the city to his soul. The city was his canvas, witness, host. Where he had once been marked by his dark skin, dictated as foreigner, laborer, migrant worker, work permit holder, he was now touched, desired, recognized. To the city’s occupants, his body was predictable in its life story, expendable in its replaceability, nondescript in its multitude – everywhere, cleaning, building, eating, living, but anonymous. But because of Lu he was no longer one of many. He was the only. The city’s grammar had changed from transaction to the syntax of desire.

On the lorry to work one morning, his body still sore from the worship of hands, an argument erupted. Forty heads bobbed and thudded against each other.

“One of us is dead,” someone asserted above the din, “my friend said so. In the other big dorm. They don’t want to tell us that it’s coming to get us.”

Another man hushed him.

“It’s a disease! Like TB and dengue, but it spreads even when you just touch.”

“That’s a lie,” yelled a man from the back of the lorry.

Someone behind him moaned and started intoning a prayer.

He felt a hole opening up inside him, edges jagged with sharp, frigid fear and covered with hot, sticky shame. Did Lu know? Would things change? What should he do?

When they returned that evening, the entrance to their dorm had a standing screen. Someone told them it was for scanning temperatures though no supervisor monitored it. It simply stood there like something that ought to make them feel safe. Other things were also added: yellow tape on the ground, volunteers coming to distribute soaps and little bottles like glue which they explain killed germs and needed no washing, posters on the walls telling them to wash their hands often, and masks (which he began wearing on the spot but was stopped by a frantic volunteer).

One volunteer, a young woman wearing thick-rimmed glasses, spent five minutes trying to explain to a group of them something called standing far away. There was a virus, she told them, that either spread in the air through droplets or landed on things they touched. So they must keep a distance. She demonstrated with another volunteer. He remembered her instructions, two meters apart (“A space of three men between one another!”). He laughed. He couldn’t even fit a finger between his body and Lu’s, sometimes.

Afterwards, he headed to the mass kitchen for dinner. Where was Lu? In the day, they worked at different sites. Everywhere he looked, there were people. How could they possibly stay two meters apart? He ended up cooking shoulder to shoulder with his friend. Upstairs, in his room shared with eleven other people, he couldn’t even get to his bunk bed without squeezing sideways. He went downstairs to Lu’s floor. The Chinese workers stared at him. He asked if they knew where Lu was.

The faces stared back at him in a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension. Again and again, he repeated Lu’s name, his tongue savoring the contours of the syllable. And then, one person, who he often saw with Lu, waved him away. “Go,” said the man in sharp bursts of English. “Lu, no, sick.”

He slept outside that night in the basketball court, staring at the rain tree which had once gently mantled their secret. He didn’t even have Lu’s number. Where was he? When would they see each other again? Then, as the night turned colder, he suddenly realized what it meant. Lu was taken away. If Lu had turned sick, and their eyes, noses, lips had touched even just yesterday, then he too was probably carrying the disease. In the middle of the night, he felt Lu’s tongue on the tip of his lashes but when he opened his eyes he realized it was drizzling.

He considered telling the dorm operator; yet, he displayed no signs of any sickness. A week passed. Lu never came back.

Then, the nightmare descended.

One, 29, 67, 298, 654, 931. The numbers in their dorm climbed with no end in sight. Every day he watched from the balcony as people were taken out. Ambulances came one after another without intervals. No one was allowed to go out of their rooms except to use the toilet. Gone was his nightly brush with death. Where once inside a shower stall, behind the stump of a tree, and between bed sheets hanging dry on a balcony lay the whole world, now there were only claustrophobia and confinement. When his roommate was taken away on the eve of Ramadan, he felt the desolation of a catastrophe of his own making. He began praying to Allah five times a day, a ritual he had abandoned since first setting his eyes on Lu three months ago – body arching to catch a packet of instant noodles, the tendons on his arms rising and falling like the bob of his Adam’s apple. Forgive my sins, Allah. If I am to be blamed, let me suffer too.

His roommate sent him photos from his isolation facility. There was no trash, grime, insects, and hanging laundry in sight. Everything was white. The bedsheets and pillows were white. The toilet sparkled. No wrappers, dead insects, or plastic bags stuck in the shower drain. No leaves, mud, or blood by the sink. And so much space, all to himself. Just one bed within four walls. It looked like Jannah.

He felt a frisson of jealousy that mystified even himself. Intimacy like theirs survived in the wilderness, in bushes, grime, the buzz of flies, the sweat trickling down under the flickering fluorescent light, down a dark road that led nowhere.

He tried to drive away the images. The tenuous thread of faith lingered. Without the glaze of love, the myth was broken. The city was kind. He was alive. He could be grateful. It did not have to be a lie. As long as he didn’t open his eyes.

 

A Stay-home Wednesday, by the hour

(This is an ‘A Day in the Life’ post that I’ve only done once before – read: A New York Sunday. So here’s another one, credits to Kyla Zhao my love, for the inspiration.)

Girl and bunny gazing at the city of lights

12:00am I go onto Canvas, click the Zoom link, and wait for the class to load. I’m on my bed, wearing a t-shirt and elephant pants. I angle the camera so that my life-sized Pooh bear lingers mysteriously at the edge of the frame. Here begins the second last class of my semester: HDS 2052 Religion Around Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez: Their Writings and Lives, taught by Profé David Carrasco. Every class this week is a farewell ritual. The virtual simulacrum of campus education is coming to an end, as is the last structure to my days…

1:48am We are discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m trying hard to reign in my yawns, but then the discussion grabs my attention and dispels drowsiness. Someone draws our attention to a passage:

So effective was the quarantine that the day came when the emergency situation was accepted as a natural thing and life was organized in such a way that work picked up its rhythm again and no one worried any more about the useless habit of sleeping.

In a novel filled with plagues of all kind, the first one that the inhabitants of Macondo encounter is the plague of insomnia, which induces the loss of memory, a fictionalized past that can only be read in tarot cards, and an experience of solitude for each and every one of them. This state of emergency becomes normalized.

As the class chatters, I balance the novel on my thigh and flip through my annotations. I spot my scribble of “Covid…” on the margins of page 322. Towards the end of the novel, there’s another plague of unending rain for four years, eleven months, and two days, during which the sense of time vaporizes:

He had seen them as he passed by, sitting in their parlors with an absorbed look and folded arms, feeling unbroken time pass, relentless time, because it was useless to divide it into months and years, and the days into hours, when one could do nothing but contemplate the rain.

Staying at home, my days blur into each other. OHYS is as much a portrait of a family as it is, uncannily, a history of humanity.

2:15-2:40am Class is over. Somehow I’m too excited to sleep. I put my legs up vertically against the wall and cultivate darkness in my head. Sometime between these timestamps, I fall asleep.

12:03pm My mom bursts into my room, hollering at me to wake up. I stare at her from under my blankets, bolster, pillows, and jungle of hair. She narrows her eyes at me, and barks, “Go weigh yourself, quick!”

12:10pm I weigh myself and write my weight down with a marker on the glass board. The numbers are in steady ascent, with only occasional dips. There’s no bucking the trend. My mom shoots me a withering look and dramatically enunciates, “Oh my God.” My dad is more subtle: “Maybe try to eat less today. Don’t lose faith.” I secretly pledge not to snack for today, but my blasé countenance irks my mother, who threatens, “You’re not getting rice.”

12:43pm We eat lunch. My mom cooks up a storm with fish, eggs, tofu, and winter melon soup. My dad sneaks me a bowl of brown rice.

1:31pm My mom absolves me from dishwashing duty because I need to read for class.

1:47pm I lean against the wall, reading Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria. I rarely read book-length travel writing so the book is quite a departure from what I’ve been reading lately. Tonight, the seminar will be discussing narratives of return between the UK and Nigeria.

4:03pm I get weirdly hungry and surreptitiously eat a bowl of peanuts. As I down them with tea, I type out this post in medias res.

5:43pm The daily numbers are out (more accurately, they have been out for two hours) but I’m somehow the first in my family to spot it. My dad’s in a video conference and my mom is napping. There are 690 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore today, a slight rise from the day before (528) but in a downward trend overall. Relieved that the daily infection rate is no longer above a thousand, I take a screenshot of the article and send it to the family group chat.

6:09pm A buzz. I look up from my reading to see a bee pummeling the windowpane with its head, oblivious to the fact that freedom and open skies are but a gap away, relentless in its myopia. Behind me, my parents are getting ready to eat a watermelon. My mom asks, “Is it red or is it yellow?” My dad doesn’t know either. They stare at it, willing it to be either. (It’s yellow.)

yellow watermelon singapore

7:55pm I finish reading Looking for Transwonderland.

8:48pm It pours. Thunderstorms announce themselves with a rustle of the trees. I pull up a poem of weathers that I sent in a funny email correspondence yesterday:

Is the sky a circular plot?
A world repeating, as Ursula said.
Or maybe a theater above our heads,
playing in unbroken, relentless time,
watching our solitude in silent mime,
until we look up to contemplate?

9:20pm My family gets ready for our daily dose of Zumba in the living room, as lightning flashes outside like a palpable instrumental. I navigate the Sunny Funny Fitness Youtube channel on the TV. My favorite routines so far are her 15 minute BTS, Dance Monkey, Fancy, Azukita, and 22 minute Diet Dance workouts. Even my dad joins in for five minutes, bobbing to the beat. My mom and I shimmy and leap around till we are soaked in sweat. “I’m a puddle,” I yell. “Burn your fats!” my mother exclaims happily.

10:03pm I take an icy cold shower and then steam my face, with my hair in a turban (because I woke up too late to do it this morning).

10:52pm Staying at home has whittled down my skincare routine. First, I abandoned sunscreen. Then, the entire morning routine flew out the window. Next, my multi-step nighttime skincare routine started shrinking. Now, there are only four steps left: hydrating mist, hydro-plumping re-texturizing serum, eye gel, and snail cream.

11:03pm I clean my laptop, phone, glasses, and books for class with alcohol wipes and spread them out on a bath towel.

11:36pm I write my novel-in-progress and this blog post on the bed.

12:45am Zoom time! It’s my final class of the spring semester — COMPLIT 277 Literature, Diaspora, and Global Trauma, taught by Professor Karen Thornber.

At one point, I had wished this semester would just end amidst the tumult of packing, goodbyes, flying, quarantine, climbing infection rates and death tolls, and a world that seems to be collapsing. But, the tenuous thread linking me to campus has been a patch of sanity and clarity in a life that’s gradually losing its outline. In times like this, the luxury of university education is made starkly apparent — it’s the luxury of thinking about big questions beyond the myopia of the crisis, of reading, writing, conversing, and learning amidst life-and-death turmoil. Reading puts things in perspective — the broader questions on migration, displacement, dignity, and citizenship are as urgent as ever. In a moment when individuals seem so powerless, swept up in the waves of history, I’m not looking for prescriptions of social justice in the stories I read, but instead, the possibilities of collective speculation. Our awareness of our own vulnerabilities imbues solidarity across space and time.

Weirdly too, in the little pods of our separate existence, technology has reinvented our reality. In this hybrid life of the digital and physical sensorium, it’s remarkable how we’ve come to realize that we are still irrevocably human. Human contact and intimacy are distorted by distance. We are marked indelibly by solitude. Yet, there’s still amazingly convivencia — what Profé Carrasco calls the ‘capacity to give life the upper hand over death.’

life is a rubik's cube

Farewell, Junior Spring. I will remember you forever.

Hope you and your loved ones are all staying safe and healthy. God bless and may the world tide through this soon and reach the other shore. x

Praying and with love,

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Girl writing against the dying light

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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