Brevity: Can Fiction Save Felons?

Hi friends, I’m trying out a new feature on this blog (on top of regular posts). Let me know what you think. 🙂 

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Brevity features short weekly posts on the interesting, incisive, or inexplicably moving ideas inspired by my Harvard professors and classmates. It’s a record of the detail in those intellectual and creative moments, as well as an exploration of the curious questions that keep me up at the midnight hour. Here’s an honest snapshot of my mind.

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Can fiction transform the lives of prison inmates?

I attended “The Words to Say it: Teaching, Writing, and Incarceration” panel last Thursday, featuring a discussion with novelist and Emmy-nominated screenwriter Richard Price, writer and prison-reform educator Edyson Julio, and author and legal scholar Michelle Kuo, moderated by my fiction writing professor cum novelist Claire Messud. In short: so many writers!!! And all of them discussing not simply the craft of writing, but the question that began this post, which on broader terms, entails an interrogation of this:

How does fiction matter to real-world issues? 

As a person who loves to read and write, I think about this question a lot. It bothers me because I can’t seem to find a concrete answer, but I also feel assured in its uncertainty because of course! There is no simple answer in life, least of all in the humanities.

I find this dilemma between what is deemed ‘practical’ and fiction, which is not, so sensitively expressed by Edyson Julio. He is a Bronx native from the Black community — one which is beleaguered by disproportionately high incarceration rates. To put things in perspective, one in three black men can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. As a community, black Americans are incarcerated at an average rate of 5 times that of white Americans.

Going home to write stories felt weirdly self-indulgent.

– Edyson Julio

Yet, what brought him to his incarceration work was a work of fiction, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (I had read an excerpt of it previously during fiction writing workshop). The novel moved him so much that it prompted him to teach creative non-fiction writing class at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. Something unexpected happened: As he taught the inmates how to write, they began to create for themselves whole new personas, inventing new gestures, names, identity, and what seemed to be a new skin to cope with the bleak, violent realities of imprisonment.

Fiction presented for the inmates the possibilities of writing the other self, of transcending a fixed identity of a criminal that they have been condemned to. All three panelists agreed that the current state of incarceration in the US was that even if you didn’t enter prison a criminal, you would leave as one. Can fiction allow them to imagine being more?

What happens to the imagination in jail? The truth is stark: those dreams that the inmates have before entering prison get utterly dispelled. Even when they leave the prison compounds, they are changed, or as Price says, “you can’t get the prison smell off your brain”. In jail, the inmates have been conditioned and manipulated by their environment to fight or flight. It doesn’t occur to them that they are entitled to have dreams. For many, their natural instinct becomes basic survival.

Sometimes, fantasy is on scale with the reality. Your world becomes this vicious crowded phone booth. You think, maybe if I move this way, I’ll get this free pocket of air… You don’t think: “I want to fly a plane”.

– Richard Price

Fiction compels us to inspect the underlying narratives of our culture. That, perhaps, our concept of sin since Genesis — Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — is incomplete. Instead of perceiving the act as falling into an eternal state of sin, it can be viewed as a necessary awakening of human consciousness and a chance for human growth.

Maybe what fiction can accomplish is more subtle. It steers me to comprehension by nurturing the chaos of reality into a recognizable shape. I exercise the muscle of imagination and of empathy. And in spotting similar things between me and the character on the page, I recognize the humanity within myself. What can fiction do for felons? It does what it does for all readers — it allows the inmates to recreate themselves so that they can become multitudes, multitudes that can encompass contradictions in their identities (criminal versus father, son, brother, etc.) and disparities between their dreams and realities.

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

Book Reviews: Sel Takes on the Classics! Part 1

Life Updates: the odds and ends of this at times extraordinary, at times off-kilter month of October

Happy Halloween, dear friends! 🎃✨ I can’t believe October is coming to an end — this month I sat for my first college midterm (Anthropology), submitted my first graded college paper (on Oedipus Rex), had my story workshopped for the first time in my life, met two of my literary idols in class (poet Susan Howe & Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist cum novelist Lorraine Adams!), went on a historical tour of Boston led by superstar history professor Jill Lepore (❤️), finally shopped to my heart’s content at Newbury Street (shopping is cathartic), experienced Freshman Family Weekend without my parents by my side… It seems strange to boil down a month to a couple of sentences, but I’ve tried. It is in monumentally busy periods that time has the swiftest wings — I have barely settled into my skin as a college freshman and now, I am almost at the end of an eighth of this whole college journey. 43 more days and I’ll be on a plane back to Singapore! It seems like only last week when I penned I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane on the eve of my departure; soon I’ll be Returning on a Jet Plane. Wow.

I’ve been reading a lot for class. There’s a category of books that I’ve been pretty unfamiliar with before coming to Harvard. So I’m dedicating my first series of flash reviews to them: the classics. Oh, Dawn with her rose-red fingers! (I finally cracked a Homer joke.)

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My dorm room bookshelf 🙂 2.5 months into college & the top shelf is already filled!

The Odyssey, by Homer

So very very long, it’s like swimming across the Aegean Sea, and yet — this epic is reminiscent of a lyrical Percy Jackson installment. It has a ginormous cast of who’s who in Greek mythology, with everyone from Helen to gods who run amok to man-eating cyclops making an appearance. Odysseus, our hero, is Robin Hood and Don Quixote wrapped up all in one muscled bundle. He’s worldly and wily, manipulative and charming (even goddess Athena isn’t immune), but he is also incredibly fallible. His embracing of mortality and yearning for Ithaca is what makes this homecoming tale thrum with humanity. At last, when the covers close, this vanishing world of supernatural happenings and mythical beginnings leaves behind a strange ache in us; we ache for what is recognizably tender in the tragedies, for the hero’s resilience, for our own sea-borne adventure, and for the kind of greatness Odysseus has that defies oblivion and reverberates through the centuries.

Readability: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Symposium, by Plato

Just from this book’s title, it seems like it very well could be about old wise philosophers who are embroiled in polemics on matters of pressing concern, maybe in a merry circle around the Pnyx. That’s somewhat accurate. Symposium in the ancient Greek sense of the word means a drinking party, not a fancy forum. The men in attendance (alas, no female perspective) devote themselves to the grand task of giving speeches, hurrah. Is it about a meaningful life? About beauty? About wisdom? Sort of. It’s about love, which ties all these loose threads together. The traditional Greek erotic relationship in question is one that is odd and objectionable even by today’s standards — a homosexual love between an older, educated man (the lover) and a younger, uninitiated boy (the beloved). Pause here and play this (MY REACTION WHEN I WAS READING). Even though it all seems strange and convoluted, read for interesting soul mate arguments, fantastical origin stories, distortions of love into philosophy, and glimpses of Socrates through Plato’s eyes.

Readability:  🌓 🌔 🌕

Fragments of Sappho, by Sappho

Sappho is basically the Taylor Swift of the ancient Greeks. You’ve got to give her credit for making angsty, raw love poems — brimming over with desire, physical agony, irrationality — trendy. Her poems survive in fragments, with empty spaces galore; for me, their incompleteness allows me to write my own experience (not that I’ve any, but) and opens up a huge abyss of love that accommodates various luminous possibilities. Personally, these fragments are way more powerful in expressing love than Symposium. Torn, burnt, lost, Sappho’s fragments have survived and continue to move us, just like how we — though “burned”, “shook”, or “broken” by love we may be — let out a soft sigh and succumb to the drumming of our hearts. Padam Padam.

Readability:  🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

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What do you think? If you had to pick one book from the classics, which would be your favorite?

Part 2 will be coming soon 🙂

Lots of love,

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Things I Love

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Yesterday at Kirkland House (where Mark Zuckerberg stayed!!) after a FIP lunch.

1. Sundays on hammocks in hot Singaporean-like Cambridge weather. Hurrah!

2. Learning. 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 — here’s a link to his Wikipedia page! 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.)

3. Making stone tools in archaeology section (Anthro 1010). This satisfies Math?! Blessed.

Trying to refit the fragments of a stone.

4. Yesterday, I went to church for Sunday Mass for the first time in a long while. Some of my close friends may know about my uncertainty and burning questions with regards to religion’s answers to ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘How should we live our lives?’ As a kid, I encountered God in the Catholic tradition due to my parents and upbringing, but in recent years, I have leaned towards labeling myself as spiritual instead of Catholic. But, in a strange turn of events, I found myself seeing this age-old faith with new eyes after many years of estrangement. Thank you to each of you who are giving me a hand in this self-exploration 🙂

5. Drowning in books (is there anything happier than drowning in books?). There are a few which I’d like to spotlight because, without college, I would possibly never touch them:

  • Sappho’s If Not, Winter (for Humanities 10): basically the Taylor Swift of ancient Greeks (102: sweet mother I cannot work the loom/I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite)
  • Anne Carson’s Nox (for my Translation seminar): a handmade book in a box, an artifact, a translation, an accordion, an epitaph for an estranged and deceased brother, a raw and almost manipulative scrapbook of his life… It defies categorization, bursts with torn photographs, yellowed notes, and an overwhelming, fatigued sense of loss that echoes in Latin poem Catullus 101 (which Carson translates).

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    Look at this gorgeous work of art.

  • David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries (for my Archaeology class): it’s honestly hilarious. In the year 4022, a random dude chances upon a hotel from the 2000s and thinks it’s a tomb. He treats the toilet seat as a sacred urn and all kinds of nonsensical, nutty misinterpretations of the past ensue. But, maybe, if ancient civilizations read about our current account of the past, they would be laughing in their graves.
  • For my fiction writing workshop, our lovely professor Claire Messud was on a book tour last week in London so she couldn’t come to class, but her husband did and he is James Wood!! He has been called the best literary critic of his generation and he writes book reviews for The New Yorker. The fact that I get to be taught by such incredible people sometimes blows my mind.

6. Roommates who squeal with me on Saturday nights about the WEIRDEST things. 😇

At slinky silent disco (???)

7. A weekend that included a wondrous burger at Harvard Square (Alden & Harlow), going to Chinatown in Boston for xiaolongbao and authentic bubble tea, singing karaoke, rewatching The Social Network, a lot of ice-cream, and good catch-ups with friends that have been swallowed by the monster called Harvard Life.

8. Facetiming/Skyping/Video-calling people I love, such as my parents ❤ ❤ ❤ If you are my good friend and we’ve not Facetimed, TEXT ME NOW.

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Until next week!

To all my dear friends across the globe: how have you guys been? I miss you and I love you.

xoxo,

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Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)

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A rejection 😦 (There is a twist at the end, so read on.)

Dear Writing,

It’s an open secret that I love you but have never felt very sure about you. You’re a complicated lover — sometimes, you come so close I can breathe your scintillating effervescence and feel you intimately against the insides of my skin; other times, I’m reminded by your improbable capriciousness. You don’t belong to me, you dance nimble steps a distance away, you ask, all wide-eyed innocence, Who said this would be easy? 

I know. I really do.

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I applied for a fiction writing workshop under Harvard’s Creative Writing program, housed in the college’s English Department. A brief Googling yields some interesting yet intimidating history about the program on The Crimson (Harvard’s daily newspaper): Writing Classes Turn Students Away is pretty self-evident from its five-word title; Ink and Paper: Creative Writing at Harvard calls the selection process “notoriously competitive”; Many Dissatisfied with Creative Writing compares Harvard’s (intimate 12-people workshops) to the larger number of creative writing offerings at other schools like Yale and Princeton.

To determine admissions, all of Harvard’s creative writing courses require a separate application that includes a three to five-page writing sample in the relevant genre due on the first day of classes each semester. Each student also ranks their course preferences when applying.

Frankly speaking, I don’t have a lot of experience with fiction writing. It’s something that I always wanted to do, but I ended up talking more about it than ever seriously attempting it. I have not written a novel; I have never been to a writing workshop; I have not even published any short stories online or elsewhere.

Yet, when I opened my inbox to read that email on a drizzling gray afternoon on September 5, my heart still died a little. (It resurrected sometime later.)

Here were the first things that enveloped me. Self-doubt (Maybe I’m not a good writer? Should I stop trying for this kind of thing? Goodbye The Advocate and anything remotely creative writing related.), thoughts of if-only and what-if (I should not have started working on my writing sample eight hours before it is due; why did I ever think this was a good idea?), and a sense of resigned helplessness clambered into my mind in a clamorous scuffle. Even though I had an inkling of the competition that it is inevitable when you gather the best and brightest together for a limited number of opportunities, and I knew I was competing against not only my peers but also upperclassmen and graduate students for those 12 slots, rejection is never (and should never be) easy to swallow.

In a mildly depressed haze, I went to the gym at the M.A.C. for the first time since college started. The steady thuds of my soles against the treadmill pulled me out of the despondent swirl of thoughts. And I recognized the pulsing, irrevocable pull I felt towards challenging and transformative experiences, the inextinguishable yearning I had for doing hard things that can change me, and the heart that drummed loudly to authentically live and achieve my best — if I can never get rid of my ambition, I must necessarily come to terms with this ugly but formative thing called rejection.

The moment I officially acknowledged that in my mind, all the clutter cleared. What mattered then was how fast I could condition my mind to move past rejection and whether I could figure out how to try again, again and again — however many times it would take — in a progressing, more sophisticated fashion.

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Life works in mercurial, unbelievable ways.

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Turns out I’m the first name on the waiting list! Someone didn’t enroll (thank you!!!) and I got in! 🙂

The next day, on September 6, when I was on my way to shop another class, I refreshed my inbox and saw an impossible email from the Harvard Creative Writing Program.

I got in, off the waiting list! Firstly, I didn’t know there was a waiting list. Secondly, isn’t it incredible that I am the first name on the waiting list? Thirdly, it must be by some strange miracle of the universe that someone just so happens to be unable to enroll and I get to discover all this behind-the-scenes stuff. This is what I think: God wants to test my resilience. The power to embrace rejection is harder to master than hard-earned acceptance. So every rejection I taste at an early phase is a precious chance for self-growth.

So, yes! I am now one of 12 students taking the Fiction Writing workshop under Professor Claire Messud this semester.

And yes, there is a happy ending to this story.

But, the happy ending is not the key thing here. What is crucial is understanding that we must each discover how we individually can embrace rejection, conquer it in as short a time as possible, and keep moving with high hopes and concrete action — all these set against the backdrop of Life in which rejection is constant and inescapable.

Even as a freshman, I find myself constantly faced with the prospect of not getting a coveted class. For instance, out of the four classes I’m taking this fall, three had an application process. I might have ended up with a completely different slate of classes in another time and place if all three didn’t happen to work out. Introducing my Freshman Fall classes:

  1. A Humanities Colloquium: From Homer to Garcia Marquez
  2. Freshman Seminar: The Creative Work of Translating
  3. Fiction Writing: Workshop
  4. The Fundamentals of Archaeological Methods & Reasoning (For people who are like ‘HUH? You want to be an archaeologist?’, no I don’t, but in an alternate universe, I would be a 20th century tomb-raider. This anthropology class satisfies the Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning General Education requirement, yay! Farewell calculus!)

I am immensely grateful for the rocky way I converged with my fiction writing workshop and this early rejection on the cusp of my transition to four years at Harvard. I will never be able to stop myself from aiming for things I love — no matter how high the probability of rejection. In a place like Harvard, or even in life, the most empowering thing might just be to proudly wear whatever rejections come my way like emblems of a battle-hardened veteran driven by unyielding dreams.

Lots of Love,

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Harvard, It’s ? at First Sight

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Obligatory photo at the John Harvard statue

Amazingly, it has been 18 days since I came to the U.S., 15 days since I joined the incredible Freshman International Program (one of the five pre-orientation programs that Harvard offers), 11 days since I moved into my freshman dorm Canaday, four days since I officially became a Harvard alum during Convocation, and three days since classes started unofficially with Shopping Week — we have one week to literally “shop” for any class that we are interested in and we are free to leave in the middle of a class for another, no commitment required; this is perfect for undecided, lost people like me to figure out how to settle on a measly four courses out of a catalogue of thousands. It’s stressful to figure out what I want to actually study — so much autonomy over the cultivation of my own mind! — but I already think this is one of the best features of Harvard’s academics. I still have two more days of ‘shopping’ to go. At this point, I have sort of figured out three out of the four courses that I will be enrolling in this semester (Freshman Fall) which I will talk about in another post.

So, how exactly is seeing Harvard for the first time as a student?

As you can see from the interrogative ? in the title of this post, it’s hard to pin down the feeling and put it into words. There are moments when I get jaded and complain (I know, it has only been two weeks…) about the most minute of things (e.g. Annenberg food, Harvard’s social scene or lack thereof, the elusive iced tea in convenience stores), but more often there are moments when it just strikes me how incredibly blessed I am to simply be here. It’s surreal to walk on the historic campus on the way to class or socials, alongside throngs of tourists — as a freshman, there’s a taut duality to this experience because we can still acutely recall how we yearned as hard as these tourists to join this university not too long ago. Harvard, to me, is both far away AND right here, right now.

These past three days, as I went around to classes with the most off-the-charts course names, quirkiest descriptions and towering reputations, it sinks in that this is what I am here for — the intellectual challenge, diversity in thought, and most importantly the freedom to go in any direction my heart so desires and be equipped with the best resources to uncover the truths I seek.

In a few words, what I think about each class I have shopped so far:

Day 1

ETHRSON 18: Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory

One of the largest classes at Harvard. Reminded me of everything I grew up reading as a child. I’m giving it a pass, but it’s very worth taking for those who have never been exposed to the Eastern tradition in philosophy.

PHIL 6: Ancient Ethics and Modern Morality

As always, arete (ἀρετή — virtue) and eudaemonia (εὐδαιμονία — flourishing/happiness)!

ECON 10A: Principles of Economics

Taught by Mankiw, who is arguably both famous (he writes the textbook) and infamous (the class is mostly taught by teaching fellows?), this class is HUGE. Honestly, half of the cohort will be taking it anyway regardless of whether it is good. I went for the experience but was once again proven right that not taking Economics in Junior College was a right choice. It just isn’t my thing. 😦

EMREAS 17: Logical Reasoning

On an island, there are only two types of people, Knights and Knaves. Knights can only tell the truth; Knaves can only tell the opposite of truth. You meet A and B. A says: “We are both knaves.” What is A, and what is B? (The answer is at the bottom of the post.)

Negotiation and Conflict Management: From the Interpersonal to the International

I stumbled into this by accident, but the room was filled to the brim — apparently, a very popular class. The professor, Daniel Shapiro, was electrifying. Definitely planning on taking this some time in my four years here. Best class I took on Day 1 of Shopping.

Day 2

A Humanities Colloquium: From Homer to Garcia Marquez

The class I wanted to take the most — amazingly I got in! Taught by six professors across departments (Anthropology to Divinity to English to History to Philosophy), it’s an immersive experience of humanistic traditions and ideals. The information-cum-application session was already mind-blowing — two words: superstar faculty.

Freshman Seminar: To Far Places: Literature of Journey and Quest (you can only take this as a freshman, as the name suggests; each seminar is capped at 12-15)

This seminar was my first choice, but sadly, I have now changed to another due to scheduling conflicts. It was pretty interesting since I love travel writing (read: Macau & Bali). Guess what, we read The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost in the first class. I definitely had things to say.

Day 3

Elementary Korean

It was a very small and engaged class. Might not take since I had already covered most of the syllabus in Singapore at HANOK. I’m very seriously considering a study abroad in Korea instead of using one of my course spots for this. T_T

COMPLIT 102: Comparing, Connecting, Compos(t)ing: Comparative Literature from Jules Verne to Slumdog Millionaire

I loved this!!! The professor was fantastic — she speaks more than six languages, I lost track — and the selection of texts is extremely compelling. Quoting the course description, “we will explore…the relation of literature to topics as diverse as the rise of new media, technological transformation and its relation to the humanities, the human-animal divide, medicine, sexuality, translation, space, gender, race, ecology, violence, and (post-)colonialism“. MY THING.

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My entryway, Canaday E, before Convocation

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With our PAFs (Peer Advising Fellows)! And our proctor, Vanessa, who happens to be the co-host of the podcast, Harry Potter & and the Sacred Text!

Roomies!!!

Lots of love,

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(A is a knave; B is a knight)