SWF 2020: 刘慈欣谈科学与幻想的无限可能

Back in my sophomore year, for a class on global fictions, I read Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and even ended up writing a paper on it: Reimagining Communities: Hospitality in The Reluctant Fundamentalist vs. The Three-Body Problem.

That was my first foray into hard sci-fi. Quite stunning. Yesterday, at noon, I watched him speak at the Singapore Writers Festival. 🌟

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在今天的访谈中,刘慈欣主要谈了他创作《三体》的灵感来源,并畅聊了幻想对于人类社会的意义。💡🛸

人类始终面对着宏大、沉寂的宇宙,至今也还未发现另一种智慧物种的存在。《三体》便是大刘的一个大胆猜想:假如宇宙有大量的智慧文明,那么在这个宇宙社会里,人类将处于什么样的地位呢?👽

虽然他在三部曲中描述的是最黑暗、最糟糕的一种可能性,但大刘坚持那并非意味着他是个悲观主义者。相比一个光明的未来,一个悲观的未来更有利于故事情节的展开。

有一名读者问了个我也很感兴趣的问题:《三体》是否包含了对于现实和政治的隐喻?

我还记得曾与哈佛Graham Allison教授曾谈论过“黑暗森林”对于国际关系的映射。但大刘说:

我对科幻作为政治或现实的隐喻没有任何兴趣。

大刘进一步解释道:“真正的科幻小说是‘无所指的’,只指向它自身。” 如1984、Brave New World这些包含未来科技的小说,并不常被归类为科幻小说。那正是因为它们是另有所指的,意图在于批判现实。

另一位读者提出:当前全球肆虐的疫情是否对他有任何启示,或者提供了小说的灵感?

大刘的回答引人深思。他直言不讳,新冠肺炎是一个意料之中的现象,往往病毒的扩散都有一个缓冲期。纵观人类社会的发展,它并不是直线的;虽然回望过去三十年的历史一直发展平稳,但更宏观的发展规律其实充满了变数,期间多次发生过大规模的传染病。然而,人类社会对未来意外的种种可能依然准备不足。例如,外星文明降临地球这种我们很少思考的问题,才是最始料不及的。它们随时都可能出现,也许一百年后,但也可能就在明天。大刘道:

可是,外星人的到来将不会有缓冲期。

中国社会正处于快速现代化进展中,给科幻小说的发展提供了很肥沃的土壤。也许我们穷极一生也无法走出地球这个房间,但至少科幻小说让我们能够从思想上走出封闭、狭窄的时空。🌏

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Thank you to SWF 2020 for a complimentary digital pass! ❤️

Lots of love,

SWF 2020: Zadie Smith’s Intimations

Singapore Writers Festival 2020 is happening from now till 8 Nov. 🎉
Read my overview of the festival here.

This is my first time hearing Zadie Smith’s voice and she is just as sharp as she is on the page. Parts of what she says resonate so much it feels like she is stapling words into my head.

Over the course of an hour, Zadie talks about writing (how the impulse arose for Intimations, her newest essay collection), the “platforms” that dominate our lives, and about language.

When she picked up the pen it was initially out of an urge to return to a distance away from technology, back to her rate, her time, her space. As writers, she says, there’s more than one way to think, more than one way to write, and more than one way to live — you don’t have to live at the frenetic pace of clicking notifications, scrolling, giving hot takes, and doing violent arguments. We think this is how we ought to live, “embedded in the algorithm,” and that it’s as natural as breathing.

But it was invented by a couple guys on the West Coast of the United States.

Watching her on my screen, animated, freckles capering about, the lure is undeniable.

She interrogates, reminding, “Things could be otherwise,” which she calls a mantra for all writers; that no matter how feverish, how manic the collective dream of social media, and how convincing ideology is when disguised as nature, writers need to observe better. And to observe requires them to sometimes abstain from the language of their times, to separate themselves from a massive medium (be it the TV in the 80s, or Instagram now), and to engage with — not symbols, not abstract ideas — the detail of lives.

The language of our times. What is it?

A few words surface frequently over the course of her conversation with moderator Joel Tan. Cultural appropriation. Privilege. Memes. What it means to be a woman. What it means to be black, white, Chinese, other, a person of color (or not), underrepresented, overrepresented, to be a good informed citizen.

“Language is not truth,” says Zadie.

Language offers a frame to make sense of our lives because experience is without form, as is interior life, as are our feelings. And perhaps all our lives are a makeshift attempt to grab onto a frame for the roiling madness of experience. No frame — a novel, an article, an argument, a meme, a caption, a slogan, a quote — can be permanent. The language that we hold onto is always transformable, partial, relative, and will one day be washed away as was the language of the generations before us. Our 19th century human counterparts had an utterly different conception of “equality.” No surprise. Those in the 22nd century will sweep away our language too.

The danger, then, as Zadie suggests, is in letting a secondary medium provide you with the language of thought and assuming that its language is innocent, neutral even. Social media mediates, nudges, forces upon us a certain language, standardised by algorithms to the point of banality. She brings up the example of Gmail offering to finish our sentences.

I wonder if she’s right. Then I think about who is even listening. Zadie probably wonders the same thing because at some point in the hour, she says, big eyes staring right at the camera, “I wonder if I’m writing for a person who is quickly, swiftly ceasing to exist.”

The kind of person who reads more books and essays than memes and listicles? Or the kind of person who isn’t embedded in the algorithm? Or the kind who, paraphrasing Orwell, do their own thinking instead of letting others do their thinking for them?

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Zadie Smith is no doubt provocative. I love that.

In particular, I take time reflecting on her insistence that writing should neither be a social media exhibit nor a performance for the algorithm because I do write for an audience (hi there, you who are reading). It’s near impossible to be Marcus Aurelius nowadays — someone writing only for himself — unless I’m keeping a physical diary.

I guess I don’t have an answer. In secondary school, I was obsessed with Facebook. Then, I came to Instagram two years later than all my friends did, only after I had finished A-levels. Over the past few months of COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve intentionally weaned myself off social media for long stretches of time.

But this blog, this corner of the internet, feels different. It nourishes me instead of depletes. It allows for ambiguity, for nuance, for meandering paragraphs instead of pithy, immediate, surface representations. Maybe that’s why I still read novels and am trying to write one. To make sense of this world, this life, this moment. For me, it feels like a hard hard thing to do. And so I write.

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Thank you to Zadie Smith and moderator Joel Tan for the illuminating conversation! Many thanks to the wonderful Singapore Writers Festival team for the complimentary digital pass! Check out the exciting programme in the days ahead here.

I’ll be covering Liu Cixin’s event tomorrow!!!

Lots of love,

Book Review: The Golden Age 黄金时代 by Wang Xiaobo 王小波

In 1997, two decades after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Xiaobo died prematurely of a heart attack. This was five years after his debut novella The Golden Age made him one of the most widely read and discussed authors among disillusioned youth in China. While initially met with hostility from the literary establishment, he’s now a cult favorite.

The novella (his most iconic work) is a bold foray into love and sexuality under a totalitarian regime — a Kafkan take on the link between chastity and political orthodoxy (a rather Orwellian theme, think: 1984). The narrative is a story framed within a story: the narrator, Wang Er, recounts his affair with a young doctor Chen Qingyang in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, from the vantage of twenty years after. The triangulation of sex, language, and power in the story sets the stage for an absurdist love story on multiple levels. For one, there’s the Maoist sublime at the backdrop of the action, wherein each person’s body is subsumed in ideological fanaticism and a libidinous impulse directed towards the state. For another, there are the two protagonists, who use their bodies in defiance of Party politics through bizarre sexual escapades — the most delightfully weird scene is them having sex in the wilderness, beside a water buffalo. An ironic parody of the rural country, which lies at the heart of China’s “Down to the Countryside” movement (上山下乡), the novella oscillates between resistance and regression, transgression and farce. Sex in The Golden Age functions not just as protest but also as a metaphor for state power and the voluntary, even pleasurable, collaboration of those subject to it.

What I like most is how Wang presents the Cultural Revolution as absurd and obscene in its theatricality and codification of desire. By having his protagonists consecrate the profane dimensions of desire, Wang celebrates a temporary escape from the prevailing ‘truth’ of puritan devotion to the state. The carnal pastime, however, is an almost nihilist negotiation with one’s own body and psyche — Wang’s deadpan language, cavalier tone, and flattened emotional affect powerfully evoke the collective ennui of that era.

While many academics have long perceived the Cultural Revolution as a sadomasochistic theatre, where the state dominates and the individual submits, a different portrait appears in The Golden Age.  The story is an unlikely sexual carnival, à la Mikhail Bakhtin. Through Wang Er’s deadpan humor, cavalier tone, and reverence towards sex, the carnivalesque energy thrums, parodying and undermining the socialist agape. The sexual detail in the narrator’s confessions to the authorities (检讨书) and the festive spectacle of the couple’s struggle sessions (公开批斗会) point to the subversive nature of language. By indulging in the absurdity of their situation, the characters escape mere victimhood and reclaim their bodies and minds from Party ideology.

The Golden Age hints at revolutionary nostalgia — not for the Maoist agrarian utopia, but for the lost possibility of love even in a time of extreme violence and total upheaval of meaning. By reigning in explicit violence and unleashing its dark energy through the absurdist carnival of sex, The Golden Age ultimately gestures to love as the forbidden password to liberation.

You kissed my belly button, right? I was right on the edge—I almost fell in love with you in that moment.

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.

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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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Confession: “I Was Born A Writer”

I’m not sure that Morocco or France are my countries… No, my country is language. My country is a library.

Have you ever felt utterly exhilarated just listening to someone talk?

I was in a conference room somewhere in the basement of the Center for European Studies. Leila Slimani was in conversation with my Advanced Fiction Professor Claire Messud.

Every single word that tumbled out of her mouth — matter-of-factly, resolutely, spontaneously — was setting off fireworks in my head. 

I was born a writer, she said. I always knew I was going to be a writer. 

When hard things happened in her life, even before she started writing her first novel, a part of her was always thinking, Now I’m getting closer to my destiny. Every moment, life was giving her material that could be digested and transformed into literature. So you’ve survived, now you can write. Everything is literature. 

When she said the word “destiny,” I was falling through time and space. When I was in first grade, the school project for the holidays was to fill out a 10-page activity sheet on our life ambitions. (Think: when I grow up, I want to be x.) In 2005, my dad was a computer scientist with entrepreneurial zeal and my mom was a homemaker armed with an engineering degree and childhood education diploma. I wonder how I knew even then the destiny of those letters as my seven-year-old self painstakingly penciled the word: w-r-i-t-e-r. My most primordial instinct, before socialization.

Then I lost that sense of destiny.

Sitting there, hearing Leila talk about how we reach the unreachable and the unspeakable with respect and tenderness in art, about the sheer freedom of writing (we can write about anyone from the inside with intimacy, even monsters or people we hate), about how writing is never to judge but simply to reveal how a person is like, gave me vertigo.

I don’t know if I have talent but all I know is that if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a bitter, angry, jealous person, Leila said in response to my question. In writing, I accomplished myself.

She was the silhouette of a 37-year-old I hoped to grow into, what I had let fall in the march of years, and what I so desperately wanted to believe, believe, believe. And to remember.

I was born to be a writer. I am going to be a writer.

Even if some days I can’t write, even when I’ve never written anything close to a novel, life has an arc, a constellation of dots, a thrumming of strings ONLY IF WE CHOOSE TO SEE. This vision, undercut by my own doubts, has been postponed, danced around in conversations, swept aside and buried when it wasn’t achieved in 21 years of existence.

But these years should neither be proof of my inadequacies nor a tractor demolishing intuition. The life I’m living through and the inner life that’s ever-shifting within me are all pieces and strands that will eventually crystallize. Every moment I’m just a step closer. 

Thank you, Leila, for the sheer imprint of your burning-hot conviction. I’ve never met someone this serenely confident in the meaning of their existence. You’ve delivered my sense of destiny back to me.

Leila Slimani Harvard.jpeg

Here’s an article about Leila from The New Yorker: The Killer-Nanny Novel that Conquered France.

Here’s a short story by Leila, The Confession. Trigger warning: it’s from the perspective of a rapist.

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Lots of love on a revelatory day,

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