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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My Junior Spring Harvard Classes ≧◡≦

Selina Xu Harvard Class Schedule (Junior Spring)

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

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

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

Selina Xu Books Harvard Classes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENGLISH 191C: Constellations — Homi K. Bhabha

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

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

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

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

Diaspora (noun)

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

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

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

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

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

HISTLIT 98: Junior Tutorial — Catherine Nguyen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Lots of love,

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My Junior Fall Harvard Classes!

Vietnam Ha Long Bay Cruise

Hello folks, we’re entering week 4 of Junior Fall?! Summer feels like yesterday — banana shirt days in flip-flops, lounging in the shade reading novels, and smearing the ring of condensation on my fingers when sipping iced tea/milk green tea with golden bubbles/pineapple smoothies (happy sigh).

My life has never been this routine and packed — classes, readings, dining hall meals, exercise. I’ve picked up running again. Weaving between Georgian buildings in the darkness, feet pounding on empty pavements, a flash of headlights, the smell of wet grass, a sliver of the night chilly between my slick fingers, my figure solitary between marble sky and solid earth.

For the first time ever, I’m taking 6 courses in a semester (one of them being an Independent Study) but still, my schedule looks deceptively doable — continuing my streak of no classes on Fridays! But, quite honestly, I’ve been feeling like I’m on a knife-edge. One misstep or a brief surrender to procrastination, and the wheel throws me off. Keeping my balance precipitously on the tightrope of discipline. It’s hard to finish all the readings but I really do want to.

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IGA 211/GOV 1796: Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press — Graham Allison, David Sanger, Derek Reveron

Piqued by a summer immersed in international news at CNN, I decided to take my first Government class at Harvard (eons ago in high school, I once took Geopolitics at NUS).  It’s held at the Harvard Kennedy School, with a small class that features a mix of Kennedy school students, National Security Fellows, cross-registered students, and undergrads.

The class is memo-style with national security cases on likely real-world scenarios ranging from North Korea’s ICBM tests to Chinese intervention in Hong Kong to Homeland Security and immigration to cybersecurity. The three professors offer different views/approaches to each of these security challenges. One fascinating dimension is the press: How does domestic press coverage inform/intrude national security decision making? How does social media (Twitter, for example) transform national security strategies? (Think: Trump.)

Fun fact: PM Lee Hsien Loong was a former student in this course (yes, it has been running for a long, long while).

HIST 14V: Walter Benjamin — Peter Gordon

My first History department course. 😳 (This is quite the semester of experimentation.) I still feel slightly out of my element due to the European focus of the class. Sorel on the myth of the general strike? Scholem on Jewish mysticism? Postlapsarian wha—?

But, I’m persisting. We are about to read Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel this coming week and it’s apparently one of his most difficult pieces of writing. Let’s see how that goes.

Why am I taking this class? I’ve previously encountered Walter Benjamin only in snippets, sporadically in different courses across departments – for instance, “The Task of the Translator” in my freshman seminar on the creative work of translating, and his writings on the flâneur in Global Fictions. My academic interests lie in cosmopolitanism and the diasporic individual in the age of globalization/postcolonialism as well as at the intersections of phenomenology and literary subjectivity. Time to trace the roots of these ideas to one of the fathers of cosmopolitan thought.

If you’d like to give Benjamin a shot, here’s a short essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.”

ENGLISH CAFR: Advanced Fiction Workshop: Writing this Present Life — Claire Messud

My 4th creative writing workshop at Harvard. So excited! The first workshop I’ve ever been to in my life was Intro to Fiction with Claire, in the fall of 2017. I still remember when I was first rejected for the class and then miraculously got off the waitlist (Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)) — life works in mercurial, magical ways. Somehow, I’m just glad that I’m still writing, frantically, confessionally, unabatingly. 

That Freshman Fall workshop ended up completely altering my college trajectory (and aspirations). While before I had jotted down snippets in notebooks or started too many novel drafts left unfinished, I wrote my first full-fledged short story (posted as a Valentine’s Day short story on the blog: April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love) in that course. It only sank in then that ‘writer’ had contours that I could touch and maybe eventually fill.

This semester, I’m working a projected longer work. It’s a speculative fiction piece about celebrity worship, mass culture, and the future of media in 2035. If you have thoughts on this or some wild ideas, or if you just want to orate about a futuristic world, GRAB A MEAL WITH ME AND TALK TO YOUR HEART’S CONTENT.

HIST-LIT 98: History & Literature Junior Tutorial — Catherine Nguyen

There’s just three of us and our tutor. We create our own syllabus collectively — each of us decides the readings/topics for around 3 weeks. I like the autonomy but the fluidity of structure is quite unprecedented. For my weeks, I’m thinking of these topics:

  • Language and Exile (Nabokov? Pnin? Imaginary Homelands?)
  • Migration and Intimacies (Wong Kar-wai? Eileen Chang?)
  • Refugees, Displacement, and Transnational Futures (Exit West? Viet Thanh Nguyen?)

What would you study, if given the opportunity to craft your own syllabus?

PHIL 97: Philosophy Sophomore Tutorial — Rachael Goodyer

We are studying the concept of dignity through its historical foundations (four influential traditions include: the Stoic, the Catholic, the Kantian and the 19th century German), dignity’s relationship to human rights, and dignity’s discussion in medical ethics. Dignity is embedded in political and legal discourse, so the readings cover many genres (legal cases, philosophical texts, literature, political declarations/treatises).

Is dignity a ‘squishy, subjective notion’ as Steve Pinker calls it? Or is it essential to the conception of human rights? Ah, how hard it is to define dignity; how omnipresent it is in our lives.

Independent Study — David Wang

I’m tentatively working on a love story set in future Hong Kong in a time of crisis and collapse, in the vein of ‘Love in A Fallen City’ (倾城之恋).

After a long, wonderful conversation with Professor Wang about speculative realism, the Hong Kong protests (the city is a crucible of capitalist & socialist forces), post-humanism, and the biopolitics of the state, I’m brimming over with possibilities and the daunting thought that every story — no matter how outrageous — needs to be grounded in the conservative/ordinary/minute human concerns. The political cannot be brushed aside.

***

Read about my classes in previous semesters:

My Sophomore Spring Harvard Classes + Some Little Things

My Sophomore Fall Harvard Classes! (ft. Life)

My Freshman Spring Harvard Classes

Lots of love,

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