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.

***

Lots of love on a revelatory day,

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Tada! All my Harvard papers in 1 place.

Le Petit Prince

Public announcement on the blog!!! : )

There’s now a blog tab apart from Chronicle and Contact called…

Academic 💙🤖📘🧬🌏

…where I’ve pooled together the A-grade papers/creative coursework I’ve written for my Harvard classes. In short, I present to you the intellectual arc of my college career.

There are some that I wish I could’ve done better, but all these intellectual-babies were born out of many frantic stretches of procrastination, mugs of green tea, adrenaline-filled nights, quiet conversations with professors, incredible seminars, and playlists full of stirring film soundtracks and sad Chinese love ballads.

The two things I’ve done most at college? Quite possibly reading and writing. 📚✍️ Very grateful to the professors, classmates, and TFs, who have truly expanded my mind in lecture/seminar and given me the freedom to engage with the ideas that excite me the most — these papers pretty much encapsulate and distill those intellectual experiences into my own words.

So just the other day, when I was trying to find something I wrote in high school (and literally COULD NOT FIND IT!), it struck me how scary it is to pour your mind and soul into an intellectual exercise or even crafting something from scratch (paper-writing is akin to creation) BUT then consign it to some spartan, dusty corner on the Mac, before they get carelessly deleted and lost forever someday down the road. In fact, apart from the eyes of my professors and TFs (Teaching Fellows), these papers have just languished unread.

(travesty!!!) (i feel so guilty to my past self, the one hunching over the Mac and punching furiously on the keyboard with six dog-eared books beside her) (it’s like having a short-lived passionate affair before negligence and then eternal limbo)

Therefore, I’ve finally decided to salvage these papers from the black hole of my laptop storage and to leave them all in one place for easy reference.

Happy reading! If you actually finish reading any and would like to talk about it, I would be very EXCITED to!!!

tom and jerry

Lots of love,

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

🌟 07/10/2019 🦄

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now I’ve met her in person!!!

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

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

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

Selina Xu Amanda Lee Koe

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

Oops it’s 1:33AM. GOOD NIGHT.

Lots of love,

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April is tough. And brilliant. ᕦ(ò_óˇ)ᕤ

Easter Egg: Screenplay at the end of the post. 🥚✨

team

()

🌏 Harvard China Forum 💡

April 12th to 14th, Harvard College China Forum happened.

Remember last year when I was the Programming Associate in charge of the Culture Panel (ft. Fang Wenshan 💕)? As the Programming Chair this year, I oversaw how my amazing team put together an entire conference’s worth of content together. China’s growth will be one of the defining stories of our time and perhaps, we have shaped that narrative somehow.

Nothing beats months of brainstorming, invitation-writing, cold-emailing, drafting of panel descriptions and discussion questions, numerous color-coded spreadsheets, coordination of individual speaker logistics (400+ WeChat notifications and overflowing inboxes every day), the introduction of panelists to each other, staying up late at night at the GSD (Graduate School of Design) reviewing design details, and of course, the three forum days when everything came together — like the greatest show, painstakingly and lovingly built, scripted, and performed by numerous hands; like something that seemed to pass too fast but still endures, gathering minds and presenting ideas like cradling two brilliant continental halves of an earthly heart before a thousand people.

The number of speakers:

120+ (including Kevin Rudd, Jin Liqun, Yu Zheng etc.)

Kevin Rudd at Harvard China Forum

With Kevin Rudd, the 26th Prime Minister of Australia, who spoke at our Closing Ceremony ✨

The number of panels: 

11. (Finance, Entertainment, Pharmaceuticals, Technology, Arts, Culture, Philanthropy, International Relations & Development, Music, Philanthropy, and Entrepreneurship)

The number of keynote ceremonies:

3.

 

The number of attendees:

1085.

Thank you to each of you who made this another great year. ❤ I’ve learned so much from this journey that never ceases to amaze me — at what other institution in the world would this be possible? The incredible caliber of speakers, the sheer depth of dialogue, the commitment from everyone involved, and the team that handles this professionally demanding role outside of our busy Harvard lives.

The other day at an IOP (Institute of Politics) dinner, I met another student who asked me intently, “Do you think we should be afraid of China? Like with their One Belt, One Road initiative?” It is moments like this when I’m convinced that there is a great need to bring thinkers from the U.S. and China in dialogue on all fronts, at a place of learning where misunderstandings and stereotypes really do still exist BUT, at least, where people are curious and seek more answers beyond the reign of media and the limits of historical subjectivity.

Blessed to be here and I hope I can keep growing alongside this forum.

(´・ω・`)

paper-writing woes 😪

In the dimly lit DeWolfe common room, I’m curled up on the couch against the floor-to-ceiling windows. I felt timeless. It could be 2AM or 5AM. The hours are collapsing into one other.

In the hours spent typing away, tiny black letters crawl over the blank page on my laptop screen like an ant army, expanding the boundaries, encroaching on the ever-expanding territory of whiteness… My thoughts flowing and flowing, like a stream punctuated by soft, rhythmic punches on the keyboard.

It’s a draft for my History & Literature sophomore essay — 3000 to 4000 words in length, on any topic that has to do with ’empire’ or ‘imperialism.’ My topic of choice? Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (not the movie!!). What does CRA have to do with imperialism? At first glance, not much. After two days of reading, knee-deep in literature, all kinds of thoughts jump around my spinning head: what does the novel tell us about ‘Chineseness’? How can we understand class — in particular, the elite Chinese diasporic subject? How are capitalism and mobility in interplay? In the background, against which all the drama, catfights, and ostentatious displays of wealth are set, there is the postcolonial city-state of Singapore, where I grew up in.

Behind me, tiny filaments of light are seeping through the blinds, painting my bare legs in stripes. Bleary-eyed, I press one finger on a blind and peer out of the window. Gentle, pale sunlight touches my cheek.

I look at the digital clock. It’s 6:28 AM.

Here marks the first time in college I’ve stayed up all night writing an essay. It’s not cool — the big, red pimple on my chin will be a battle scar — but it feels like a college ritual that has finally happened. Here’s what happens when you have three papers due in one weekend.

April is tough, tough, tough!!!

ʕʘ‿ʘʔ

🤖 what have i been reading? 🧟

For the latest paper in one of my courses, “Forbidden Romance in Modern China,” I’ve decided to write a screenplay adapted from the most violent scene in Yu Hua’s Classical Romance 余华的《古典爱情》— it’s a short story that parodies the literary archetype of the Scholar-meets-Maiden romance (think: Peony Pavilion 《牡丹亭》) by subverting it with irrational, absurd violence that recapitulates the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. A climactic moment in the story is when the scholar is in a tavern and discovers that his long-lost beloved is being chopped alive for consumption in an adjacent room.

I decided to re-write that particular scene of monstrosity and bleakness into the format of a screenplay. (Scroll to the bottom of the post for my short 6-page screenplay. Hands down, the most violent thing I’ve ever written.)

How to represent the unrepresentable? How to imply violence? How to avoid explicit gore, yet still create suspense and dread?

As someone who is adamantly and unabashedly terrified of horror and thriller films — the scariest movie I watched until I turned 16 was Spirited Away (imagine your parents turning into pigs?!) —  I decided to approach this academically. I researched the best thriller films (they had dreadful names… Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre… And some that were more normal like Hitchcock’s Psycho.) and read their screenplays to study how they conveyed violence. 

The result? I was shivering in broad daylight and was terrified to turn off the lights at night. (My roommate also happened to be away. T_T)

In the meantime, to relax my English-addled brain, I also fell down the rabbit hole of Chinese novels which are CRAZILY GOOD. The genre of choice has been a mix of mystery and speculative fiction — one that I really liked is about being infinitely suspended in a Matrix-like game that simulates real-life unsolved cases.

Sigh, happily reading while floundering in a sea of deadlines. Now I’m five days away from leaving campus and ending my Sophomore year. Books are time machines!!!

Lots of love,

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Brevity: Renaissance Woman

Yuri

“Dark” by Xuan Loc Xuan

Brevity features short posts on the interesting, incisive, or inexplicably moving ideas I encounter at Harvard. 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.

Sometimes, I realize how much more I have to go and then —

limits.

I saw on Facebook that someone in my year won the Wendell Prize (congratulations!). It’s awarded to one Harvard sophomore annually, who is identified “as the most promising and broad-ranging scholar in his or her class.” We were Facebook friends but I don’t think we’ve ever met in real life. I Googled his name. What came up first was an article he had written for the Harvard Independent, titled “Getting In.” It was beautiful — a portrait of a young artist rendered more evocatively, gently, and vulnerably than most writers on campus (myself included) could have.

How to be a modern-day Renaissance woman (or man)? In a few seconds, I just knew. This was it.

Returning to the page of search results, I clicked the second listed site. It was a Physics department page. He was an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Physics, doing “statistical and semiclassical analysis of thermal distortion potentials.”

Before me was a vague outline of someone who was not just good but excellent at many things. I felt a burst of wonder and respect, but also intermingled in a tide of wistfulness, a dim sense of loss. It wasn’t self-negating. Yet, this brief internet encounter with a silhouette of brilliance made me rethink why I found his straddling of fields so surprising.

Our instincts are honed by stereotypes. Somewhere along the path of my education, I must have subconsciously internalized the distinctions between the literary arts and the sciences, took their gulf for granted, and happily embraced specialization. Why should scientists not be able to write beautifully? (Carl Sagan and Paul Kalanithi come to mind.) Why would it be impossible that a writer be a scientist? (Like Nabokov and his butterflies.) Are their objects of inquiry — nature and culture — all that different? The universe and its truths. The human condition. A story with different building blocks.

With the platter of liberal arts options, I have thus far chosen to do a grand zero of problem set classes at Harvard. Truth is: I’ve willingly, single-mindedly boxed myself in a rigid taxonomy of disciplines, the boundaries of which might actually be more nebulous than I think. The divisions between fields that we presume as perennial are often recent constructs — e.g. philosophy and the natural sciences (for instance, phenomenology started as psychology under Brentano).

Not sure how I will move forward with these thoughts. After all, I count myself blessed to have found an irresistible love for the humanities and the opportunity to study them at a place like Harvard. But, honestly, where else could I have had such a close brush with the contours of a renaissance man, or this acute of a realization?

(Typed this in a flurry, during a break from writing a paper that’s due tonight. Back to more practical tasks on hand!!!)

Lots of love,

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