Brevity: Why Literature?

brevity (2)

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.

***

In contemplating topics as disparate and interrelated as identity and race, violence and colonialism, migration and kinship, religion and fundamentalismtruth and reconciliation, why do we (or should we) turn to literature?

In Girl in D.C., I wrote:

So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.

In one of my classes, Genealogies of the Global Imagination, taught by Professor Homi Bhabha, several answers to the question of ‘Why literature?’ have been gradually taking shape. Here’s a tentative synthesis of some of my notes, mostly inspired by Professor Bhabha.

Why literature_

While every discipline has its own discourse (from science to history to art), literature absorbs the discourses and structures of knowledge from all these disciplines. And it does so while keeping the subjective, the affective, and the emotional alive.

Most texts from other disciplines refer to the disciplinary paradigm that they are situated in (e.g. scientific method, ethnography, historiography, social practice, forms in art, religious ritual, legal constitution). Yet, literature creates the norms within its very narrative and makes us rethink these norms. Even if a work of historical fiction is historically situated, the provocative gesture of the literary will not be judged on its factuality, but by other criteria such as emotional ferment, imaginative capacity, empathy, etc.

In particular, literature makes us think about language in a self-conscious way (an act of interpretation) and interpretation as an ethical endeavor because:

  1. the act of reading assumes a dialogical relationship
  2. therefore, engaging with literature is based on faith and trust in a dialogue with something outside you.

When we consume literature, we think, Why ishe/she saying this to me? More than just an act of meaning-making, we are also engaging in subject formation—we ask, How am I being implicated in the textual process?

So, why literature? Because it’s an encounter—like friendship—with some mode of meaning which doesn’t immediately reveal itself to you. You have to work with it in a meditative, normative approach in order to interpret.

Do you think literature is needed to understand our world today? If so, why?

Lots of love,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

Girl in D.C.

Dear You, what is art for?

Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. with seven other Harvard students on a 10-day Wintersession at Dumbarton Oaks revolving around this topic:

Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America.

In those 10 days, I’ve seen art like this:

And this:

Interestingly, this:

But also this:

Lastly, my favorite:

While wandering around all these private collections-turned-museums, I wondered: why do so many rich people collect art? Does collecting art offer the hope of immortality?

If I were a millionaire and bought artworks according to my own taste, and then proceeded to open my artworks to the public, am I doing philanthropy? Is this then effective altruism?

As a student in the humanities, I recognize that this is an increasingly data-driven world. A dispassionate assessment of value is involved in most things. Similarly, in the field of philanthropy, the value of the practical (a medical cure) is much easier to measure than that of the cultural (museums). Few people would deny the value of art museums or art itself. But, the act of opening a museum, or donating works to an existing one, is one that deals in the intangible currency of beauty, inspiration, creativity, memory, and joy. The outcomes are often measured in stories. That scruffy boy-artist who was once inspired by a green dinosaur sculpture that breezy afternoon, hands chilly and heart thumping. A girl in pigtails who gazed into the face of a Buddhist sutra on a silk tapestry and found ignited a lifelong ardor for the study of religion. On opposite totem poles balance narratives and metrics. It seems trivial to stand in a gallery and ponder the question of beauty, the virtues of Renoir, or inspect the unspeakable allure of an artwork to our eye when temperatures are rising, geopolitical depression beckons, democracy is arguably under assault, and all sorts of polarizing tensions are erupting at the surface.

Knowing all that, the question is then: is being motivated by “passion” instead of “reason” in philanthropy immoral in a world where there is need? Or, turning the gaze inward, is being motivated by passion instead of reason in choosing my studies and life’s work an ineffective use of resources?

I don’t know.

This wintersession was an incredible course. I loved going to a museum each day and discussing with professors the gospel of wealth (an interesting—and short—read: Wealth by Andrew Carnegie), the culture of giving, the economy of prestige (naming rights of buildings are a key instrument in philanthropy, as the greatest longevity is embedded not in capital but in culture), the disturbing inequality of our times, and—

The grey areas of philanthropy. By all measurements, we are living in an era of growing inequality and the consolidating power of big money. A statistic that scared me is this: the richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population. But rich people don’t just own the wealth, feel la-di-da, and spend it on private jets and Chanel bags. Intentions aside, they are shaping our lives in unimaginable ways using philanthropy. Call me ignorant, but this is the first time I really wrapped my mind around the fact that philanthropy is not an inherently good thing—it needs to be used well. Unlike the government, most philanthropic foundations (from Gates to Carnegie) have no checks and balances. They own wealth enough to rival national economies as well as social resources (tax exemption), but their agendas are set by a few individuals. What kind of impact do such megafoundations generate? For instance, Bill Gates is fixing education in the U.S. with his Common Core State Standards initiative; that means, putting it generally, one man can decide what millions of kids are going to study.

How adequate are the institutions of philanthropy to the needs of the day? How can we shape this system?

I vacillated between wonder and the alienating sense that all these questions I was contemplating in the first place were inaccessible and removed from most people’s realities. I’m sitting here in my dorm room back in Cambridge choosing classes, two days before Shopping Week begins for the spring semester, and I’m trying to make sense of all these intellectual endeavors. So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.

For those of you also coming back to campus, here’s to a semester with classes that tear apart your assumptions and equip you to rebuild them, self-discovery, friendship, and happy adventures!

Lots of love,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

 

 

 

 

(From top to bottom, the artworks can be attributed to Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Marc Chagall.) 

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. 🙂 

brevity (2)

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.

***

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

PSC Scholarship: Yes, Maybe, No

psc choice

I write this so that, years down the road, I can remember my exact state of mind when making this choice that had a bearing on how I choose to lead my life. It’s arguably the most monumental decision I’ve had to make in my brief 19 years of existence. This is a raw, honest, reflective account that is ultimately personal. I don’t intend to extol or belittle, but to interrogate and ask questions. It’s important not to accept easy answers.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

What is a life worth living?

The question haunted me in the empty dining room. My table was a realm of spilling notes, mockingly optimistic highlighters, and the ticking tension of dwindling hours. But this revision orbit was like a vacuum in time — it balanced on the pinpoint of desire for straight As but easily took over my life; yet, it was peripheral to all achievements and sufferings of mankind. My stress levels had overshot the mark and I was suddenly aware of how laughably trivial this entire endeavor was.

Exam revision was at once obsessive yet alienating.

I was having a crisis, in the twilight weeks of September 2016, right before my Preliminary Exams.

I had questioned myself on what I wanted to do with my life at many junctures. But the answer I had gripped tightly in my hand for years now paled in the face of an expanding abyss of disillusionment.

I want to give back to my country by joining the civil service. 

My mind clamored for some sort of meaning behind that. Something, anything that could put all the opportunities and insights my education has given me, this having of knowledge, all the ceaseless striving to wield it, and this grueling pre-‘A Levels’ period in perspective. It rang hollow.

***

YES

To be very honest, my dreams have taken strange turns and detours and roundabouts.

I wanted to be a writer for years, before deciding to be a lawyer when I was 11.

Sometime in my secondary school years, before I knew it, my dreams had shifted in one direction — to be a civil servant, specifically, a foreign service officer. In retrospect, it was so widely endorsed by everyone who heard that I never bothered to think too hard about it.

I had a lot of other dreams that ebbed and flowed over the years. To excavate the stories of obscured histories and marginalized peoples, to question assumptions and drive action with cultural understanding, to be a cartographer of the heart… These dreams were nebulous, without the reassuring sturdiness of an occupationally safe and established aspiration.

The society feeds us words through which we filter our beliefs and experiences. Cloaked in those other dreams, I had felt insecure and adrift. Saying the two words “civil servant” offered a resounding sense of certainty, backed by societal endorsement and centuries of veneration for entering the government that is rooted in the Asian psyche. The nugget of truth in the age-old adage handed down to my young mind was powerful — Confucius had said, “A good scholar becomes an official(学而优则仕).” How could he be wrong?

***

MAYBE

I received a thick package in the mail on a warm February morning this year.

Thank you for applying for a PSC scholarship and for considering a career in the Singapore Public Service. I’m pleased to inform you that the PSC has decided to offer you a scholarship. Congratulations!

A yes was lingering at the brink of my mind.

I thought about what will probably be a sufficiently fulfilling career in the Public Service, playing a part in protecting, building and advancing the potential of this magical country that has given me so much. I thought about what everyone, most of all my parents, expected me to be. I thought about my hefty college tuition fees that the scholarship would cover and the calculated comfort of a firm 6-year job offer.

I thought and thought and thought.

***

NO

It is dangerous to avoid difficult questions or even answerless ones.

What is a life worth living? Right now, I say this: a life worth living is a well-examined one. That means to interrogate and to interpret my motivations behind every choice and what I truly want from life. To ask, self-aware, why this, but not that? To seek to not lose sight of what gives me meaning.

I had thought very carefully about the prospect of a 6-year bond in the Public Service, or what might even turn into decades there. My thoughts had unwittingly crept towards the whimsical idea of writing a novel in my free time, in anticipation of one day when I would finally have the money or the opportunity to delve wholeheartedly into creating creative content.

Why this winding, circuitous path filled with digressions towards my keenest dream?

Let me admit this: I was cowardly. I wanted to leave as many doors opened as possible — to have the financial security of a formulaic career while dabbling in the unpredictable. I did not want to break free from the habitual momentum of being on a smooth-sailing path that will lead me to conventionally defined success. Call me risk-averse or afraid of failure. All these labels were spot-on.

It was very telling by the direction of my thoughts that I sought to postpone my dreams of writing and that I saw a public service career as a safety net that might enable my dream, not as a true calling.

After all these reflections, my true ambition did not grow more apparent to me. But being painfully honest with myself revealed to me that right now it for sure was not the public service.

On 28 April 2017, I replied to the secretariat. I decided not to take up the PSC scholarship.

***

There is nothing wrong with the first part of this sentence:

I want to give back to my country

It is most admirable and also what I aspire to do. The logical extension of this is to then ask: How can I create the most value for the society?

In an ever-changing world, there exists a limitless array of callings for each of us.

But, why is it that most of us, by a certain age, begin to subconsciously gravitate towards one rote path? Why is the widespread mentality that we can only give back to the country if we are in the civil service?

I do deeply admire those working in the civil service who find it their true calling in life. But I wonder how many have lost sight of their true ambitions, trapped by their yearnings for what is financially secure and what society deems prestigious. And I do also ponder about those, bound to the words they signed on a page at 19, who feel their dreams slowly die in the claustrophobia of bureaucracy and who, in their thirties, settle with resignation and listen to their souls heave a sigh at the opportunities that they are too tired to fight for. What we do inevitably alters the fabric of who we are — we are the sum total of our choices; every choice to postpone a dream might just mean that you drift further apart from it.

Interestingly, one argument that won my parents over was the fact that Singaporeans are the only ones who are confronted by an abundance of safe, prestigious options. It’s not like every other 18 or 19-year-old in the world doesn’t face immense uncertainty in life. The existence of lucrative government scholarships in Singapore has fostered a unique situation: many Singaporean youths are fearful of taking a less trodden path. An unprecedented number of top students choose to be civil servants when they could have become entrepreneurs, artists, mathematicians, scientists, writers, innovators, public intellectuals in civil society and whatnot.

Nowhere else in the world do other youths our age have such an option of immense security. So, how can Singaporean youths be less risk-averse when the opportunity cost of risk-taking is so big?

I admit that uncertainty is daunting, but it is the inescapable truth of life. We all constantly face the looming void of blank, unwritten next chapters.

But uncertainty also means freedom. Freedom to not have your life figured out at the age of 19, freedom to explore every dimension of you, freedom to mold your sense of purpose with the pressing challenges of our era, freedom to experiment with failure and learn how to not fear it, freedom to shape the trajectory of life with all the new possibilities that you could not have known of at 19.

Freedom to combine what you love to do with giving back to society.

Freedom to see the world as a young idealistic mind, to stand independent, grow informed, and to have both the wisdom and the ability to choose. Come back to join the public service after you’ve seen more of the world, understood more of yourself and know that it is your calling.

Value this freedom. It’s quite underrated in our society. Many things in life are far more important than a sense of security. Value the promise of uncertainty over the comforts of the predetermined.

Such is life: I don’t know what’s next, when it ends, or what it means. So I choose to tread the path that leads directly to my yet unarticulated dream — I will likely stumble, pick myself up once, twice, again and again, but I keep in heart a powerful reminder: the shortest distance between me and my dream is reliably a straight line, not a constantly deviating path. So, I embrace the autonomy I now have, and boldly, foolishly move forward with faith.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

The Modern Child

modern child

Disclaimer: this is a piece of satire (not autobiographical!), but then again definitely all art imitates life. The structure is a parody of Girl by Jamaica Kincaid, which depicts a very different world of expectations — simmering beneath the mother’s long string of admonishments and words of advice to a daughter are the layered themes of domesticity, feminity, poverty, and sexuality. But what would the modern mother say to the modern child? I got so inspired once I considered this question that I typed the paragraph below out in 10 minutes in a burst of heavenly creativity 🙂

Here comes Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother meets Girl. 

Learn your phonetics on Mondays with Teacher Tan but don’t speak English to us; practice your Chinese characters before going to the playground; be back on time or else — five sheets of calligraphy; we are helping you to find your passion, so be sure to go for piano on Tuesdays; don’t forget ballet on Saturdays; be a good friendly Catholic girl on Sundays and make three new friends, darling, on each trip to the church; it’s a neighborhood school, so we won’t give you any stress; is it true Amanda did better than you in class?; it’s important to be happy, darling; at least 90 marks on every test is all we ask for, of course; doing well in English and Mathematics is a must!; but doing poorly in Chinese would be a shame to us; no Kit Kats until you memorize your táng shī; this is how you’ll have a good moral character; this is how you make no careless mistakes on quizzes; this is what doing your best means; this is exactly how you make us proud; this is how we know if you’re smarter than the rest; but I don’t ask Amanda for her grades; this is how to ensure that you remember to never, ever get 89.5 again; this is how you make friends with people you like in school; this is how you make friends with people you don’t like; this is how you become a prefect; this is how you get into the GEP [1]; let us fill this out for you; this is how you get into the best primary school in the nation; this is why we know best; Mrs Loh says you are very weak in Science compared to other students; this is what true diligence means; this is what is called full effort; this is how you pull up your grades; why, are you not sleeping enough?; do three mock papers a day, it’s the December holidays; this is how you top the class; time to wake up for school, darling, it’s 5.30am; this is how you earn real self-esteem; you should absolutely aim for 290, dear, it’s not impossible; this is how to become the PSLE [2] top-scorer—why?—because you can (and then you’ll be on the papers); we believe in you; this is how you disappoint us; but still this is how you keep pushing yourself; this is how you set more goals; this is how you achieve them; this is how you hone your leadership; this is how you excel in CCAs [3]; this is how you excel in your CIP hours [4]; this is how you have real passions; oh, darling, because it’s necessary not to be a nerd who can only study; this is how you have straight As; this is how to be filial to your parents; this is what we sacrificed so much for; this is how to be the best; why are your grades dipping?; darling, I know you want to relax, but your A-levels are coming; this is what JC [5] life is like; this is how the world works; what do you want to do in the future?; you can be a lawyer; this is why we always trained you to work hard; this is why you’ll thank us one day; this is how to make us proud, once more; this is how to attain the life we always wanted for you; this is what ‘success’ means; this is when it’s time to apply for Harvard; but um what if I can’t get in?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of child who can’t get into Harvard?

*** THE END ***

Sometimes, I do wish that I could have had a parent who had all the answers in life, but I’m so grateful I don’t. For me, the caricature of the tiger mother resonates not because my mother is one (not exactly), but because, more than anything else, I have to deal with it as an excruciating voice within myself — one that keeps doubting, relentlessly pushes, and never settles. I’ve learned to turn that voice down when it gets too overwhelming and does more harm than good. You do that too 🙂

Footnotes, for those who weren’t in the Singaporean education system, here are the explanations behind some terms (loads of acronyms across the board):

  • 1. GEP: the Gifted Education Programme (about 1% of the national cohort is admitted into the Programme after selection tests in Primary 3; they will undergo an enriched curriculum in 9 GEP schools)
  • 2. PSLE: the Primary School Leaving Examination (a national examination which pupils sit at the end of their final year of primary school education; secondary school admissions are based on your aggregated T-score, with selective high schools having higher cut-off points over the years)
  • 3. CCA: Co-Curricular Activities (non-academic activities that all students participate in)
  • 4. CIP: Community Involvement Programme (most Singaporean schools have specified a mandatory number community service hours under this; it’s now called Values In Action)
  • 5. JC: Junior College (the final two years of high school before university)