A Stay-home Wednesday, by the hour

(This is an ‘A Day in the Life’ post that I’ve only done once before – read: A New York Sunday. So here’s another one, credits to Kyla Zhao my love, for the inspiration.)

Girl and bunny gazing at the city of lights

12:00am I go onto Canvas, click the Zoom link, and wait for the class to load. I’m on my bed, wearing a t-shirt and elephant pants. I angle the camera so that my life-sized Pooh bear lingers mysteriously at the edge of the frame. Here begins the second last class of my semester: HDS 2052 Religion Around Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez: Their Writings and Lives, taught by Profé David Carrasco. Every class this week is a farewell ritual. The virtual simulacrum of campus education is coming to an end, as is the last structure to my days…

1:48am We are discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m trying hard to reign in my yawns, but then the discussion grabs my attention and dispels drowsiness. Someone draws our attention to a passage:

So effective was the quarantine that the day came when the emergency situation was accepted as a natural thing and life was organized in such a way that work picked up its rhythm again and no one worried any more about the useless habit of sleeping.

In a novel filled with plagues of all kind, the first one that the inhabitants of Macondo encounter is the plague of insomnia, which induces the loss of memory, a fictionalized past that can only be read in tarot cards, and an experience of solitude for each and every one of them. This state of emergency becomes normalized.

As the class chatters, I balance the novel on my thigh and flip through my annotations. I spot my scribble of “Covid…” on the margins of page 322. Towards the end of the novel, there’s another plague of unending rain for four years, eleven months, and two days, during which the sense of time vaporizes:

He had seen them as he passed by, sitting in their parlors with an absorbed look and folded arms, feeling unbroken time pass, relentless time, because it was useless to divide it into months and years, and the days into hours, when one could do nothing but contemplate the rain.

Staying at home, my days blur into each other. OHYS is as much a portrait of a family as it is, uncannily, a history of humanity.

2:15-2:40am Class is over. Somehow I’m too excited to sleep. I put my legs up vertically against the wall and cultivate darkness in my head. Sometime between these timestamps, I fall asleep.

12:03pm My mom bursts into my room, hollering at me to wake up. I stare at her from under my blankets, bolster, pillows, and jungle of hair. She narrows her eyes at me, and barks, “Go weigh yourself, quick!”

12:10pm I weigh myself and write my weight down with a marker on the glass board. The numbers are in steady ascent, with only occasional dips. There’s no bucking the trend. My mom shoots me a withering look and dramatically enunciates, “Oh my God.” My dad is more subtle: “Maybe try to eat less today. Don’t lose faith.” I secretly pledge not to snack for today, but my blasé countenance irks my mother, who threatens, “You’re not getting rice.”

12:43pm We eat lunch. My mom cooks up a storm with fish, eggs, tofu, and winter melon soup. My dad sneaks me a bowl of brown rice.

1:31pm My mom absolves me from dishwashing duty because I need to read for class.

1:47pm I lean against the wall, reading Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria. I rarely read book-length travel writing so the book is quite a departure from what I’ve been reading lately. Tonight, the seminar will be discussing narratives of return between the UK and Nigeria.

4:03pm I get weirdly hungry and surreptitiously eat a bowl of peanuts. As I down them with tea, I type out this post in medias res.

5:43pm The daily numbers are out (more accurately, they have been out for two hours) but I’m somehow the first in my family to spot it. My dad’s in a video conference and my mom is napping. There are 690 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore today, a slight rise from the day before (528) but in a downward trend overall. Relieved that the daily infection rate is no longer above a thousand, I take a screenshot of the article and send it to the family group chat.

6:09pm A buzz. I look up from my reading to see a bee pummeling the windowpane with its head, oblivious to the fact that freedom and open skies are but a gap away, relentless in its myopia. Behind me, my parents are getting ready to eat a watermelon. My mom asks, “Is it red or is it yellow?” My dad doesn’t know either. They stare at it, willing it to be either. (It’s yellow.)

yellow watermelon singapore

7:55pm I finish reading Looking for Transwonderland.

8:48pm It pours. Thunderstorms announce themselves with a rustle of the trees. I pull up a poem of weathers that I sent in a funny email correspondence yesterday:

Is the sky a circular plot?
A world repeating, as Ursula said.
Or maybe a theater above our heads,
playing in unbroken, relentless time,
watching our solitude in silent mime,
until we look up to contemplate?

9:20pm My family gets ready for our daily dose of Zumba in the living room, as lightning flashes outside like a palpable instrumental. I navigate the Sunny Funny Fitness Youtube channel on the TV. My favorite routines so far are her 15 minute BTS, Dance Monkey, Fancy, Azukita, and 22 minute Diet Dance workouts. Even my dad joins in for five minutes, bobbing to the beat. My mom and I shimmy and leap around till we are soaked in sweat. “I’m a puddle,” I yell. “Burn your fats!” my mother exclaims happily.

10:03pm I take an icy cold shower and then steam my face, with my hair in a turban (because I woke up too late to do it this morning).

10:52pm Staying at home has whittled down my skincare routine. First, I abandoned sunscreen. Then, the entire morning routine flew out the window. Next, my multi-step nighttime skincare routine started shrinking. Now, there are only four steps left: hydrating mist, hydro-plumping re-texturizing serum, eye gel, and snail cream.

11:03pm I clean my laptop, phone, glasses, and books for class with alcohol wipes and spread them out on a bath towel.

11:36pm I write my novel-in-progress and this blog post on the bed.

12:45am Zoom time! It’s my final class of the spring semester — COMPLIT 277 Literature, Diaspora, and Global Trauma, taught by Professor Karen Thornber.

At one point, I had wished this semester would just end amidst the tumult of packing, goodbyes, flying, quarantine, climbing infection rates and death tolls, and a world that seems to be collapsing. But, the tenuous thread linking me to campus has been a patch of sanity and clarity in a life that’s gradually losing its outline. In times like this, the luxury of university education is made starkly apparent — it’s the luxury of thinking about big questions beyond the myopia of the crisis, of reading, writing, conversing, and learning amidst life-and-death turmoil. Reading puts things in perspective — the broader questions on migration, displacement, dignity, and citizenship are as urgent as ever. In a moment when individuals seem so powerless, swept up in the waves of history, I’m not looking for prescriptions of social justice in the stories I read, but instead, the possibilities of collective speculation. Our awareness of our own vulnerabilities imbues solidarity across space and time.

Weirdly too, in the little pods of our separate existence, technology has reinvented our reality. In this hybrid life of the digital and physical sensorium, it’s remarkable how we’ve come to realize that we are still irrevocably human. Human contact and intimacy are distorted by distance. We are marked indelibly by solitude. Yet, there’s still amazingly convivencia — what Profé Carrasco calls the ‘capacity to give life the upper hand over death.’

life is a rubik's cube

Farewell, Junior Spring. I will remember you forever.

Hope you and your loved ones are all staying safe and healthy. God bless and may the world tide through this soon and reach the other shore. x

Praying and with love,

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Girl writing against the dying light

on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a new feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I read, usually for class (and now also for leisure). Here are some of the books I’ve read since returning home from campus, during my hermit, 100-step count days inside the house. 

What’s in your library?

What do you read in your midnight hour?

What do you read when you’re in crisis and you’re afraid?

(questions posed by the inimitable Profé Carrasco)

outline rachel cusk

Outline, Rachel Cusk

FREAKING BRILLIANT! I started this on the plane back home and fittingly, the first chapter occurs on a flight. Following a writer who heads to Athens to teach a course on creative writing, the novel flits from a conversation with her seatmate on the plane to those she has with strangers, writers, and students in the city.

Often, I had to pause in the middle of reading just to underline the sentences that would leap off the page about anything: a piece of furniture, a waitress, the ocean, a dog, the back of a man. Cusk has a knack for spinning profound revelations about marriage, motherhood, or writing from the smallest of objects, which can hit you in the gut.

I suppose it’s a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated. It’s the basis of your faith and sometimes you doubt it, but you never renounce it because too much of your life stands on that ground.

His aged back seemed to maroon us both in our separate and untransfigurable histories.

There is something incredibly radical and even divisive about this novel. It’ll either alienatingly subvert all your expectations about novelistic conventions or arrestingly reinvent them. A novel in ten conversations, the narrator’s own story and interiority never comes to the foreground, only emerging in contrast to the tales of those she meets. She is no longer the subject but only a vessel, a cipher, an interlocutor. Or as the novel puts it, a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Koolaids, Rabih Alameddine

Koolaids, Rabih Alameddine

Carnivalesque romp through time and space! A book unlike a book. There is neither a plot nor a clear sense of whose head we are in. Instead, the novel is a pastiche of genres, vignettes, quips, scenes, religious texts, dialogue, emails, and diary entries about the HIV/AIDS crisis and the Lebanese Civil War at the tail-end of the 20th century. The metaphor of war and contagion is particularly resonant right now, amidst the pandemic of our times. Critics have dismissed this novel, but I think it provides a telling glimpse into those whose lives are engaged in a perpetual war against a virus. For the characters, death — social death, and actual death — is the pathos of everyday living because intimacy gains the violence of warfare. Are the parallels not uncanny?

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

Short but moving, with a brilliant title that grasps the soul of the book. Centered on the U.S.-Mexico immigration ‘crisis’, the slim book is about Luiselli’s experience working as a translator for child refugees at the New York immigration court. The forty questions the novel presents are drawn up by immigration attorneys but cannot encompass the complexity of the children’s lives. Yet, their responses determine whether they will be granted legal sanctuary in the U.S. or be repatriated to their old lives of horrific violence. The novel’s answer to the conundrum of interpretation — legal, cultural, narrative — is a reminder to all of us who search for neat answers and resolutions when wrapping our minds around a harrowing, ongoing crisis:

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

When narrative closure must be negotiated, then perhaps undocumented migrants and refugees are in no position to negotiate an end. They can only pray to arrive and to stay:

Before coming to the United States, I knew what others know: that the cruelty of its borders was only a thin crust, and that on the other side a possible life was waiting. I understood, some time after, that once you stay here long enough, you begin to remember the place where you originally came from the way a backyard might look from a high window in the deep of winter: a skeleton of the world, a tract of abandonment, objects dead and obsolete. And once you’re here, you’r ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the great theatre of belonging.

[…]

Why did you come here? I asked one little girl once.

Because I wanted to arrive.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

If you’re interested… read Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E. Anzaldúa; Fronteras Americanas by Guillermo Verdecchia.

The Great Derangement- Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh

In a moment when we are encountering the crisis of our own times, in a magnitude that seems to dwarf all that had come before, Ghosh’s treatise is a reminder that the looming threat of our time is climate change, lest we forget. Compellingly, by approaching climate change from his standpoint as a novelist, Ghosh argues that the modern novel in its fundamental tenets — the ordered regularity of bourgeois life, the gradualist predictability of nature, the human-centric ideals of the European Enlightenment — is complicit in concealing climate change. The climate crisis is, for Ghosh, also a crisis of the imagination.

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

While there are alternative modes of writing in dealing with climate change than the realist one that he presents, Ghosh is still remarkably prescient in diagnosing the representational challenges that climate change poses to our imagination. A seminal work.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

If you’re interested… read my Hist & Lit junior essay, “Reimagining the (Post)Human in the Age of the Anthropocene: the Cyborg Figure in Frankenstein and The Windup Girl,” which I’m happy to send to you ٩◔‿◔۶

Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez

Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez

(Please recommend to me your favorite memoirs, if you have any!! A character I’m currently writing is a ghostwriter, so I’m on a memoir reading streak.)

Impossible not to fall in love with the man and his life. Gabo’s memoir contains an imagination (and a language) so rich that it creates a world of its own.

Unexpectedly, Gabo’s entire life (and his fiction) pivots on the two-day trip with his mother to sell their childhood house. The memoir opens with that trip and goes on to his childhood, his education, his struggles as an emerging writer and journalist, the Barranquilla Group, the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, his influences, and his community. Parts of it gets heavy, especially with the exhaustive introductions of names and places, and yet, the moments of resonance between his real life and his fiction are captivating to stumble upon.

I recommend the first half of the memoir. His childhood bears a haunting, almost unbelievable resemblance to the world in One Hundred Years of Solitude. As Gabo points out in The Fragrance of Guava, a book of interviews, “All I wanted to do was to leave a literary picture of the world of my childhood which […] was spent in a large, very sad house with a sister who ate earth, a grandmother who prophesied the future, and countless relatives of the same name who never made much distinction between happiness and insanity.” How lucky we are that he found it irresistible not to put it onto the page.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

Chronicle of A Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel García Márquez

Compact, stunning novella on murder, complicity, and premonition in a town that’s like an open wound. Based on a true story that happened in Colombia, the novella gives us the ending in its title and on its opening pages: Santiago Nasar is murdered. In a reportage style (no doubt reminiscent of Gabo’s own training as a journalist), the narrator unravels a baffling murder that the whole town knew about and yet no one intervened in. The inevitable conclusion is secondary to the question of collective guilt and human intentions. No single person is guilty because everyone is. The real suspense is not the whodunnit but why those who could have saved him and wanted to simply did not.

I recall Marquez’s observation in his 1982 Nobel lecture, The solitude of Latin America:

A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.

Storytelling is always a second opportunity. To engage in the creation of opposite utopias when reality is disillusioning and truth constantly eludes. In interrogating our darkest sides, a master storyteller like Gabo saves all of our souls.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

***

What I’m currently (re)reading — links go to Goodreads: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Hungry Tide, Lost Children Archive, and Coin Locker Babies.

Stay safe, with love,

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Quarantine Diaries: 14 days!

spirited away train no face

Chihiro and Kaonashi on train Spirited Away

On our way home from Changi airport, my face tightly clad in a N95 and my hands gloved up, the car hurtling towards my 14-day self-imposed quarantine in my bedroom, my mom casually mentioned, Isn’t there some famous writer who said all you need is a room of your own?

And money, I said. Virginia Woolf said that. 

Now you have that, my mom said, a satisfied look on her face.

But I’ve always had my own room.

That’s different. Now you’ll truly be alone. 

My mom was right. I would be completely solitary. Even as a teenager, at my angstiest, I had never once shut the door on my parents or barred them from entering my bedroom. I did most of my studying in the living room, spreading my books and handouts and highlighters all over the dining table that could seat eight. It took not being able to leave my room for the solitude to settle like a second skin.

Long story short: I LOVED IT. Never thought I was an introverted homebody, but I got used to this newfound solitude instantly and curled up in it. My quarantine could only be so comfortable because of my tireless, superhero parents who showered me with care and love. They even tolerated my incessant begging for snacks (i.e. chocolate) over phone calls and chat messages. We had prolonged conversations and negotiations over whether I deserved another piece of chocolate to be placed outside my door. Fun times.

Now that I’m officially liberated from my bedroom confinement, not much is different. My family is staying indoors on most days, taking a stroll around the neighbourhood (still bustling) in the cool, crisp night air, in the wake of afternoon thunderstorms.

So…what was it like being quarantined in my bedroom for 14 days?

I read and wrote, sang like a walking karaoke machine, watched my favourite music variety shows (and Secret Forest), and ate/thought about food.

Here are the books I read in full: Outline by Rachel Cusk, Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Living to Tell The Tale by Gabriel García Márquez, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. You’ll hear about them again soon in the next instalment of On My Desk!!!

I also read some essays (Edward Said’s “Reflections on Exile”) and long-form journalism here and there (especially celebrity profiles, which are voyeuristic pleasures). As for my History & Literature junior essay, I’ve been reading (or more accurately, trying to read) all over the map on climate change (Dipesh Chakrabarty, Bill McKibben, Rob Nixon, Alan Weisman, Anne Tsing, Elizabeth Kolbert etc.), the Anthropocene, science fiction (Darko Suvin), hyperobjects (Timothy Morton), postmodernism (Frederic Jameson), posthumanism (Donna Haraway), romanticism (MOUNT TAMBORA and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), and climate change’s connection with literature (Ghosh’s The Great Derangement is pivotal) in general. I’m floundering in this stream of readings, pulled in many different directions, and just trying to make sense of them all before April 13th when I have to submit a coherent essay.

I’m also back on Twitter (https://twitter.com/selinaxuxinyue), which is basically my reading board for pinning good, random articles I come across (for internet posterity). Come play ٩(^o^)۶

How did I eat???

My parents placed each meal on a wobbly black stool outside my door.

Super lucky and grateful for (a) my mom’s healthy, delicious (often self-innovated) recipes that I always miss terribly at Harvard (e.g. 红枣银耳莲子汤 snow fungus soup with dates, wolfberries, and lotus seeds! 紫薯小米粥 purple sweet potato millet porridge with rice balls and walnuts!! 自制黑豆黑芝麻糊 organic homemade black bean and black sesame paste!!! and then, my favourite Cantonese soups 煲汤 with all kinds of ingredients that I used to be picky about as a kid, but now humbly devour — ELIXIR FOR THE SKIN, truly); (b) my dad who brings home tasty Singaporean hawker/Kopitiam food (featuring recurring appearances of my true love, CHICKEN RICE). Behind every tiny square of this collage are the hours my plucky parents devote to making my meals and my quarantine as carefree and healthy as possible. So very blessed. Thank you, Father. 🙏🙏🙏

Selina Xu coronavirus stayhome quarantine meals

I can only think.

As public life grinds to a halt around the globe, cities go into lockdown, and markets crash, I have much to be grateful for. For little things. For family, for stability, for good health. For our first-world problems and what we can still laugh over (before/after quarantine memes, Zoom jokes). For having an oasis in the middle of a global crisis that can be a source of refuge, catharsis, and recharging. For a home that I can return to. For parents with autonomy over their time. For the biopolitics of nation-states that tilt the scales in our favour: as “the body of the nation” shuts its epidermal boundaries against the infiltration of pathological “bare life”, we — on the inside — benefit.

But for those in war zones, refugee camps, or conflict-ridden countries suffering from humanitarian crises, they are now footnotes and afterthoughts at this moment in history. Who do they turn to when everyone is reeling from the crisis in their own backyards? Even in Singapore, those engaged in face-to-face services, the leisure economy, and the gig economy are disproportionately punished. Those at the frontlines don’t have the luxury of retreating.

I have no answers. I only know that the coronavirus has ruptured the bandages and sutures over chasms, exposing deepening inequalities in their grotesque entirety. This pandemic cuts through the dispassionate voice of global capitalist reasoning to a reality that’s stripped bare of pretensions, leaving only pathos: mortality. At the end of the day, it’s about who gets to live and who gets to die. Maybe that reality has always been there, but we just couldn’t see it as clearly until this moment when the precarity of our own lives is plain as day.

Or maybe, we have all the answers, like Dostoyevsky said, and “it is the questions we do not know.” What can we change? Do we even want to do anything other than to hug ourselves close? What of our humanity and our imagination rises up, in the face of disaster?

***

To each of you who are reading, I hope you and your families are safe, healthy, and well. The world will tide through this together. Please take care. x

With love and with all of you in my thoughts,

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kaonashi no face spirited away peace

Life in The Time of Coronavirus

Covid-19 plane flight boston to HK

The first time I heard the word ‘coronavirus’ was at our last dinner in Istanbul. (note: COVID-19 is the newest strain from the coronavirus family, but forgive my then-ignorance of epidemiology.)

“What virus?” I asked.

“It’s happening to a few people in China, but no one knows what it is,” J said.

“How do you spell it?”

I googled it. A smattering of headlines confirmed my friend’s announcement. WeChat was eerily silent. Usually, my grandpa would send me health tips and motivational pieces six times a day.

The next day, I bought three masks at the pharmacy beside the hotel before heading to the airport. They were dirt cheap.

At the newly built Istanbul airport, amidst the milling crowds, I was the only one wearing a mask. A spot of blue in a sea of blank, buoyant faces. People shot me quizzical looks.

Fast forward a month and a half. I’m now typing out this post on the transpacific 15-hour flight from Boston to Hong Kong. Practically everyone on my flight is wearing a mask. Many are also sleeping with their goggles on. Some are decked in full-out hazmat (hazardous materials) suits. Earlier on, the atmosphere at the airport was unprecedented. Tension lined every face. The terminal was almost ghostly, with only a stream of quiet, intense activity. The group of us flying together wore two layers of socks (the outer layer to dispose of after walking barefoot past the customs check), multiple disposable gloves, goggles on our eyes (or over our glasses), hats/caps/hoodies to cover our hair, and were each armed with N95s, hand sanitizers, and alcohol wipes (and hand cream, for me). I covered my seat with a blanket and asked for another. Before I put my bag on the floor, I covered it in plastic wrapping. We wiped down every surface before finally sinking into our seats.

New rituals and habits come quickly. My knuckles are red and raw from frequent washing and the kiss of alcohol. Never has flying, which often veers into the morbid with its own rules of death and disaster, felt so much like staring at the gaping chasm in the eye. We are neat rows of cattle on defense, suspending our breath beneath an invisible hovering knife. We erect barriers — polyester, rubber, territorial, epidermal — but we are only human.

***

I’ve read theories on the state of emergency/exception. Carl Schmitt. Giorgio Agamben. Walter Benjamin. The suspension of normalcy. The intervention of the sovereign (or the state, or the university, or any authority really) to transcend the law for the public good. A moment when rules are remade, when the abnormal is made into the new norm.

On March 10, at 8:29am, Harvard announced the move of all classes to online instruction and advised all students to no longer return to campus after spring break. A mere 20 minutes later, at 8:49am, Harvard followed that announcement with another: “Harvard College students will be required to move out of their Houses and First-Year dorms as soon as possible and no later than Sunday, March 15 at 5:00pm.”

Essentially, the school was shutting down. The last time Harvard was disrupted on this scale was during World War II.

It has been five days since the move-out announcement. Rumors, insider’s stories, and emergency alerts have been flying across screens and schools. Boston might be under a lockdown starting next week, says one source. 40% of the campus is already infected, speculates another. Four hours before I leave for the airport, Harvard finally tells us that there is one confirmed case of COVID-19 on campus. Though they are testing only one close contact of that person, I think it’s a conservative estimate to say that the truth is closer to this: there is at least one confirmed case.

Reading about pandemics, plagues, outbreaks, contagion, and state of emergencies is wildly different from being smack in the middle of one that looks to be spiraling out of control around the world. Anxieties conflict: we want to escape from the looming portent (or reality) of community transmission on a close-knit campus, but the deeper, unspoken fear is “Am I a carrier?”.

As we stream across borders — we, the students from numerous campuses across the world that have shut down one after another — we bear our passports. Our countries take us in because they have to. Maybe that’s what home means. In times like this, citizenship becomes the real differentiator on a global scale. As globalization turns against itself, our identity paperwork determines where we can go or where doors slam shut in our faces; where we can get expedient, affordable healthcare or where neither testing nor solutions exist. How vastly different histories we live on the same earth. How similar the bodies we inhabit despite all the distinctions drawn by passports.

Surreal. Maybe that’s the only word I can summon. This reality in which we live is suddenly inflected with the extreme and tinged with the irrational. I wonder too if we will one day think of this surreality as very much a part of the norm. Will we, years later, look back and see this as the vague beginning to how humans had to renegotiate life in the face of increasingly unpredictable forces of nature? Perhaps, we are standing at a threshold.

To all of you reading, and your loved ones, stay safe, take care, and keep well. 🙏💪

With love and prayers,

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on my desk: 1984, The Bluest Eye & more!

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a new feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I’ve read for the week, usually for class. This first installment covers some of the books I’ve read from week 2 to week 4 of Junior Spring. 

Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

An immediate classic. So incredibly fresh and vivid despite the years between us. I never did like Mr. Rochester (in Jane Eyre) growing up and this book does not redeem him. Rhys has created a backstory for the madwoman in the attic, who only appeared in brief glimpses in Eyre. Yet, the novel very much stands on its own, almost cannibalizing the original with its ferocious exploration of the Creoles in the Carribean. It’s not a retelling, but instead a creative translation across tropics, temporalities, and epistemologies — of a white woman growing up in Jamaica during the time of the British Empire. How does Antoinette become Bertha, locked up in the attic? The chambers of your mind will never be quiet while reading this.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

1984 George Orwell

1984, George Orwell

Can’t believe it took me 4087823 years to read this classic. This is one book that has seeped into our collective consciousness and been normalized — we think of Big Brother when we articulate surveillance; we think of Room 101 when we describe a torture chamber, we now think thoughtcrime as not very surprising at all (politically unorthodox thoughts). The recent past, and even pockets of the present, is in a sense ‘Orwellian’. The policing of thought, interestingly, is tied to the policing of desire — of sex, of the body, of love. The subsuming of love and reproduction under the socialist agape of the state abhors us instinctively. Yet, Winston and Julia’s supposed ‘love story’ is never quite about love. It’s a temporary digression in desire that is rectified. The stark, satirical ending is a diagnosis of dictatorships — every authoritarian regime has power, but they want it to be bolstered by authority (which has to be gained). Even when totally secure of power, there is that eternal fragility and insecurity towards achieving ‘one body, one nation, one mind’ and the constant use of the language of ‘for the people’. At least, 1984 strips its authoritarian regime bare of any pretension or instinct for amelioration — the contradictions are there for all too see. Elsewhere, in real life, the masquerade goes on.

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

a mercy Toni Morrison

A Mercy, Toni Morrison

A powerful story of suffering — as bond or bondage? — and wilderness, told through Florens, a young black girl enslaved in the early years of European settlement in America — 1682 when “Virginia was still a mess.”

The criticism of the capitalist apparatus of slavery is subtle but impossible to ignore.

There was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at [Ortega’s plantation] and a remote labour force in Barbados. Right? Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars.

The Puritan task of an errand into wilderness also takes shape through the stories of the women, each struggling to keep their internal wilderness restrained. But I’m left thinking, what is ‘wilderness’ in the first place? It’s nature and what was there before. Or is it very much a colonial construction, an attempt at legibility, of rhetorical erasure to justify their settlement (it’s raw, it’s clean, it’s up for grabs!), a patriarchal way of control and of domestication?

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕

The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Painful to read. In the first few pages, Morrison tells you the entire story. And yet, we cannot help but read on, driven by the urgency and rawness of her language. It’s about a little black girl who just desperately, fervently wanted blue eyes. The desire is a sign of an internalized inability to recognize her own personhood, worth, and beauty. One thinks of racism in quiet, insidious ways: reifying the violence of the normative subject in the West (Pecola is “the good subject”). But also in terrifying ways: the cosmology of whiteness is still ever-present — I wonder if the pursuit of certain beauty standards reflects that even for myself. We could call it, as Profé Carrasco does, the cosmological conviction of racism:

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Dark Princess W. E. B. Du Bois

Dark Princess, W. E. B. Du Bois

Part romance, part quest, Dark Princess is unlike anything else I’ve read. At times allegorical, often a blending of genres, it meshes sharp critique of local politics (flushed by money), of racism, and most piercingly, of the color line within the color line: peoples who are oppressed, or even with the same oppressor, will not understand their oppression in the same way. How do you form an ethical community of resistance across faultlines (class, cultural, racial)? What does it mean to construct international solidarity when there is an uneven experience of violence? Even now, the chasm exists: the cosmopolitan elite seeking to liberate the masses despite widening gulfs.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

A Woman Named Solitude Andre Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude, André Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude reads like part magical realism, part fairytale, part oral tradition. Yet, every once so often, historical dates and figures rupture the poetic shimmer of the language and we are reminded: all that we are reading — atrocities, revolts, humans treated like cattle, the cosmological upending of an entire continent’s lives — is in fact reality, or truth. The novel starts with “Once upon a time, on a strange planet, there was a little black girl named Bayangumay” (1). While the reference to “the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto” on the last page of the epilogue subtly ties two human holocausts together, Schwarz-Bart does it so much more sparingly and movingly than Philips.

The narrative distance (a detachment that’s no less passionate) brings a certain universality and oneness of human suffering to the story of Bayangumay and later, Rosalie who will metamorphose into Solitude. As Sarah De Mul terms it, the “forgotten holocausts” of the world in the case of this novel zoom into the brief span of years when the Africans enslaved in the Carribean vacillated between freedom and return to slavery, under the political machinations and Anglo-French rivalry of the metropole.

Caught between her yellow body and her black heart, Solitude is not just one “whose nation no longer exists, whose village has been destroyed and whose ancestors are dead” (64), but also one who loses her mother at a young age, abandoned with a yearning for Africa and Man Bobette’s secret. That Rosalie grows into Solitude, with her soulless eyes and her laughter is a soft yet powerful resistance. Her laugh — alongside the guttural laughs of other women, from her mother to the Congo woman Euphrosine — unsettles. In a land of “lies” (81) and “madness” (77), ruled by white men and (to a less extent) women, the unsettling nature of laughter represents a particular discursive contract that subverts — a moment of irrational recognition, rehearsed unexpectedness; it brings to mind Freud’s theory on jokes and their relation to the unconscious. In the face of such violence, Solitude mows over white men — surprised at the blood on her own hands — but ultimately, in the face of death, can only laugh.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

The Nature of Blood Carl Phillips

The Nature of Blood, Carl Phillips

The many different strands of The Nature of Blood reminds me of what Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes called ‘multinarratives’ in a multiracial and polycultural universe and also one particular mode of Friedman’s three juxtapositional comparisons: collage. Stephen, Eva, Othello, the Jews of Portobuffole, and Malka’s stories are put side by side, each in its own distinctive context, but read together for their in/commensurability. The form of the novel itself refrains from the prescriptive and the didactic. Instead, the collage of narratives across time and space presented to us puts the autonomy in the hands of the reader. What rises to the surface when we see things side by side, whether we choose to make that comparison ourselves, and what constellations/collisions we end up holding in our hands is ours. The novel is suggestive.

What I really liked about the novel is its almost palimpsestic nature of time, which reflects the traumatic nature of remembering, of repetition, of unknowability. The narrative time frame defamiliarizes known stories (I, for one, didn’t realize that Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was an intertextual piece) — for instance, Othello remains nameless throughout, and his own observations of Venice (full of “enchanting promises” as well as “betrayal”) flesh out his diasporic subjectivity which fleshes out all the invisible and unsaid blanks within Shakespeare’s play. Othello’s inability to see the parallels between him and the Jews living in the ghetto is made all the more stark given the coeval story of the Jews of Portobuffole happening in Venice. Similarly, I found myself spotting the ironic, painful symmetry in Malka and Eva’s experiences — the feelings of being dehumanized into animals (“monkey-people” for Eva; “cattle” for Malka); their flashes of first-person confession that drowns amidst their silencing within the larger society.

In their respective experiences of dislocation, trauma, dehumanization, and othering, there is sameness in their difference, and difference in their sameness.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔

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Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts? Do you like this new feature? ٩◔‿◔۶

Lots of love,

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