August sipped away like a bottle of wine

I’m taking a leave of absence this fall!

Perhaps, as early as May, part of me already sensed that I didn’t want to do another semester of remote learning—especially not during my senior fall. I got sad thinking about doing the last year of college on Zoom. It felt anti-climactic, disappointing, a poor facsimile of what it could have been.

Truth is, I’m not in a rush to graduate at all. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, through conversations with friends back home and a simmering creative malaise over my fundamental ability to write fiction.

What is it I fear? The prospect of graduation isn’t scary, what is is the official entrance ticket to the treadmill of busyness and conformity, turning on the axle of capitalist productivity. What’s scary is the 9 to 7 weekdays in office cubicles, two-week vacations per year for the next couple of decades, housing mortgages and tax bills, and coming eventually to terms with the fact that—despite every lofty ambition growing up—my life will unfold exactly the way I don’t want it to. The fear of a mediocre life, of living too cautiously. At this age, mediocrity hurts more than failure.

In some ways, taking the semester off to continue writing whole-heartedly is a gamble against those fears, to give myself a real shot at the kind of life I aspire for when there isn’t that much to lose (yet). The existential crisis has never really quite left me, as my old blog posts remind me (e.g. Sophomore me confronted my worldly fears amidst recruiting season; in Junior fall, I was grasping for ANY inkling to answer “What do I want to do with my life?”—I stopped pretending that it was anything other than writing).

I am still a work in progress. A part of me knows if I were to die next year, I would spend the next 365 days writing a novel. That’s the only thing I felt destined to do, ever. So, I am trying to understand what the writing life is like by taking this semester off and deconstructing the in-built drive to fill up the time with internships, research stints, etc. But, another part of me still doubts. A few days ago, I went to read the first 20,000 or so words in the current draft of IDOL and was gripped by an eroding sense of insecurity. I’ve been staving off the instinct to edit for as long as possible so that I can first get the words out on the page. But, over these past couple of days, I’ve been writing very few words and knee-deep in editing because my style is so flawed that I kind of want to crawl into a hole and bury myself. (John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction has been a good antidote for the onslaught of writing woes BUT it’s no panacea—HOW CAN I WRITE BETTER?!? HOW DID I NOT REALIZE MY WRITING VOICE IS SO STILTED???)

Here’s a short reading list of what I plan to read/reread/finish reading in September, to get past the rut (may a bad writing week not turn into a streak):

Dear reader, is there a novel that you loved for its voice and style, on top of its plot? I’m hungry for recommendations, feel free to send me titles ANYTIME!!! 🙏

Lastly, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DADDY!!! 亲爱的爸比,生日快乐 🎂🎉✨ The other day I was going through my childhood books. Many had been lugged back by my dad from his overseas trips—Chinese novels, math olympiad books, hardback fairytales, poetry collections, history tomes, comics… Each time I went to the bookstore with my dad, the two of us wouldn’t be able to leave without making a purchase. I owe my love for words—both English and Chinese—to my parents, who feed my imagination and indulge all of my creative urges.

Writing is a very uncertain thing, lonely, patient, chaotic, private; whoever observes the process from the outside might be mystified. Apart from word counts (which are quite helpful for establishing routine and utterly useless in relation to the actual substance of my words), my parents don’t quite know what I’m doing with my time. Occasionally, my dad asks me about how the novel is going and I don’t quite know how to tell him. Yet, still they have chosen to support any of my life decisions with trust, respect, and love. For that, I am eternally indebted to them.

谢谢爸比妈咪, 感恩有您们~ ❤️ 

Another month with G and J in IDOL begins!

Lots of love,

July things

July is…

  • staying indoors all month (except for the momentous excursion outdoors to the polling station on July 10). My hermit life continues with my mom — neither of us have taken a step out of the house for months. Life meanders: the whole morning wrapped in blankets, my mom’s home-cooked lunch right after light breakfast, reading while eating fruits and chocolates, and writing after the sky turns dark in the hum of evening bustle, the breezy night, the shadowy hills, and my favorite sort of quiet — the feverishness of midnight when I seem to be the only human alive.
  • uninstalling social media apps. Forgive my excruciatingly slow replies, my digital antenna is sluggish. I am a texting turtle. 🐢
  • trotting out of the house with my dad on July 10. We queued for thirty minutes, went through rounds of hand sanitization, deliberated for a millisecond before stamping on a polling card, slotted it into a box, and trotted back home. With that, I finally exercised my right as a citizen.
  • absent-mindedly reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (reminds me of Elizabeth Taylor and naturally the time I watched her five-hour-long Cleopatra on the flight from Boston back to Singapore) and All The Light We Cannot See (the writing is exquisite but somehow I can’t get into it).
  • listening to Taylor’s folklore. ❤
  • writing IDOL. This month, I wrote a total of 20,001 words.
  • ending with the last revolutions of the clock. For the final moments of July, here’s a haiku by Kobayashi Issa (posting both translations here because they move me in different ways — or, in Walter Benjamin’s words, each liberates the language imprisoned in a work in its re-creation of that work):

This world of dew
is a world of dew,
and yet, and yet.

我知这世界,本如露水般短暂。
然而,然而。

With love,

[Writing Updates] June 六月

整个六月都在室内度过,三点一线的生活:床,餐桌,还有皮沙发。我倚着餐桌打瞌睡,在床上看小说,在皮沙发上码字和偷吃零食。窗外有烈阳,有蓬勃生长的仙人掌,依山(很矮的武吉知马山)傍水(游泳池嘻嘻)。

这个月至少读了十本小说。我流着汗,也流着眼泪,滴答在屏幕上,流成故事。

📚

The whole of June happens at home, facing rolling green hills. A defence camp hidden somewhere inside.

Every day, I write (though you can easily spot some bad days 😓). In June, I’ve written a total of 20,498 words.

I conceived the idea for IDOL last summer in New York and started thumbing it out in the iPhone Notes app before sleep. After the summer ended, I had mostly character sketches. In the fall of 2019, I enrolled in Claire Messud’s Advanced Fiction workshop. Over the course of a semester, I completely redrafted the first two chapters with drastic changes to both plot and character, and it became IDOL V2.

Early this year, however, after weeks of traveling over winter break, I was stuck in a rut. Everything I wrote tasted insipid. My main character, G, kept floating out of reach. A silhouette in a mist. The closer I got to him the hazier he was. Over and over again, I asked myself, What’s the point of this story? I wasn’t in love with my characters and didn’t know how they were going to grow as the plot developed.

Around the end of February, one morning, I sat up in bed feeling like I had just woken up from another life. A dream that stuck to the skin but was receding with each passing moment. Frantically, I typed out whatever I could remember. Version 3 was born in first person. I started afresh on a blank GDoc. I had crossed over the rut to the other side of the bank.

13,683 words and two months later, I felt good about the story.

On the third day day of this month, I was gripped by a scene in my head: a glittering product launch for a new tech, electrifying audiences like Steve Jobs’ legendary iPhone presentation. It blanketed every previous thread I was trying to sew into the story. I realized I had to sit down and rewrite, starting with this new scene that easily toppled the previous chapters as though they were a house of cards. Introducing, IDOL V4. The 13,683 words were now in the trash.

I carried on with V4 for the first three weeks. Then I collided into the inevitable. Where’s the story going? I knew the tech, the conceit, the style, the world but when it came to the plot, I rammed up against a cliff. I finally accepted the sad truth: Without a detailed chronological, chapter-by-chapter plot outline, IDOL was never going to go anywhere. Subconsciously, I had sought to delay it. Many writers write without a plot outline and, instead, allow the story to organically emerge. Me? Three discarded versions of IDOL accumulating to over 50,000 words are a testament to my inability to proceed beyond the first three chapters without a plot outline:

Plotting is arduous. It’s my major weakness and also what impairs every novel I have started but never finished over the past decade. In the hard-disk of my laptop, there are over at least thirty novel beginnings that were abandoned, virtual detritus accumulating dust.

In the past week and a half, as I plotted everything chronologically (a plot that stretches over twenty years), IDOL genetically mutated into a foreign creature. The bones are still there: future of entertainment, idol, ghostwriter. But the rest of the animal has gone wild. In July, my goal is to finish writing the plot outline in detail (by Week 1). Then, IDOL V5 shall begin.

Another 20,000 words for July — ready, set, go!

Stay safe, with love,

22

hi dear friends and readers, today i turn 22!!!!

today i feel very very loved and very very blessed. thank you to each of you — you know who you are — who have made it so special. i’ve waited seven years to play this song (so let this be the soundtrack to this blog post):

(taylor swift’s 22)

this day has turned out entirely different from what i expected. this morning, i woke up to my mom blaring a birthday song remix and dancing Zumba moves beside my bed. then, my dad sent me a video montage he made — it started with the airport farewell in August 2017 when i was hugging my best friends goodbye, as i was about to head into an entirely new chapter of my life far away from home. i remember crying when the plane soared into the darkness, a forest of lights diminishing far below, thinking anxiously about the weight of distance, the receding intimacy of everything i had grown up with, and all that the husk of ‘harvard’ promised. would i like my roommates? would i make good friends? would harvard ever match up to the years of yearning?

in the blink of an eye, i’m almost done with college. incredibly, my roommates have become my best friends, i have found friendships that are too precious not to last for life, and harvard no longer seems like an amorphous mass suffused with uncertainty, overblown with desire, and untouchable. instead, it has become the most unexpected incubator of ambitions, the wildest adventure, and the best house of minds. harvard has become a second home and, without doubt, the past three years are some of the best in my 22 years. (on a side note, thinking about this coming fall, i love my time there so much that i would hate to spend my last year far away from the people and energy that makes harvard, harvard)

and somehow, three years later, my friendships from home have stood the test of time. distance hasn’t changed anything. i am so immensely grateful to have so many constants in my life — people who i have grown alongside throughout our most awkward, idealistic, and undaunted years, whose friendships ground me as life throws us up in the air, who i will always hug close to heart. i’ve known some of you for 8, 10, 13 years. others, i’ve only known for 3 years, but i feel like i’ve known you for a lifetime. here’s to many more decades and more memories!! ✨

to my dearest Zhao, who put together a video of birthday wishes from my closest friends that made me cry, THANK YOU! I LOVE YOU. 22 is unforgettable because of what you did. words don’t suffice. thank you for for your bangin’ production skills (better than hollywood), for bringing together people i love across screens and timezones, and for loving me the way you do ❤️

back to my dad’s video montage: it ended with this family photo at the Changi airport, the blocky letters of DEPARTURE looming in the background. for the past three years, every moment spent with my parents has been transient. i was like a bird in flight, stopping to rest in a nest but leaving it behind again and again. on the heels of past birthdays came farewells at airports and in hotel lobbies, as I went off in pursuit of some semblance of adult life, eager to forge independence away from my parents.

today has none of the urgency that laced past birthdays. the past few months in a pandemic — like a clearing in the woods of days — has taught me a new relationship with time. i feel time pass gently, without burn. i feel grateful to the quarantine/circuit breaker, in a twist, for giving me treasured months with my parents. our family is finally all in one place, no goodbyes on the horizon (yet) and feeling the days wash over us with no countdowns. 谢谢最亲爱的爸比妈咪,包容我的任性,尊重我的梦想,鞭策我的成长,并给予我最可贵的陪伴。您们的爱让我勇敢地去探索世界,自由地选择想要的人生,并始终相信自己。因为您们,我看到了什么是理想与奋斗,什么是爱情最美好的样子。长大了的我只想像您们一样潇洒、善良、浪漫、热血,坚持自我。愿二十二岁的我依旧能让您们骄傲,不辜负您们的信任。您们是最伟大的父母。爱您们!!! 🐲🐯🐵

since the semester ended two weeks ago, i have been in a state of torpor, mostly indulging in leisure. i love idleness (and am a proud proponent of its value in creative realms) but i also know everything is only good in moderation. for the first time in a long while, i now have full autonomy over my time with no external structure or authority. i have no one to answer to. i have no goal that is imposed; i have to articulate it in action. the first few months of being 22 is free for me to define. i’m honestly not that great in terms of self-discipline (procrastination has been the scourge of my life), so needless to say, my biggest fear is that i will emerge at the other side of summer without having done anything. my public goal, stated here, is to draft another 60,000 words for my code-named work in progress, IDOL 2047. 🌝 this means 20,000 words per month from june to august. i will be tracking my progress on this blog. 💪 i’m thankful to have the space and time to think and write. 希望我对得起自己!

to God, thank you for always guiding me with love, for surrounding me with people who inspire me, and for teaching me how much i don’t know but giving me the pen to write an answer on life’s canvas. because of You, i’ve realized that everything in my life happens for a reason. when so many things are spinning out of control, thank You for giving me the strength, the peace, and the faith to carry on. i submit myself to Your wisdom and arrangement. in these times of trial, when i see one set of footprints in the sand, i know You are carrying me.

to each of you who read this blog, thank you for stopping by, staying, and breathing in my words, however raw or unembellished. this is my 84th post. not including this post, i have cumulatively written 88,665 words on this blog. (the length of a novel!) i can’t imagine having this much to say about anything, and yet, time works its magic. each snippet, easily forgotten in memory’s dark chambers, are preserved in this tiny corner of the internet. this blog is my time capsule. i have never persisted in writing anything for this long, neither diary nor blog (the last one lasting for 880 days). thank you for being part of my life’s stories. x

from 22-year-old me, with love,

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,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

Girl writing against the dying light