Conversation Sparks: Life, you’re the dancing queen

We tend to romanticize the past. For a while, I complained to friends that I was feeling the belated onslaught of the Sophomore Slump — call it the Junior Jetlag. Every seven hours, I would reminisce about my idyllic, fulfilling sophomore fall. But then, I went to read what I wrote one year ago — my pillow book: the pathos of November. MAJOR THEMES (tl;dr): Bad days, paper extensions, and all-out clumsiness. Turns out, last year this time, I fell down an entire flight of stairs in Quincy. HAHA. I must have edited out the memory from my head.

Ever since the (angsty) post about October unraveling, the universe has been sending me sparks left, right, and center. Grateful to everyone who has engaged in long conversations and hearty eating with me over the past two weeks.

ME: Life, you seem meaningless. I feel hollow.

LIFE: Catch this! Try this! Hear this! WATCH ME JIVE!

ME: (speechless and incapable of mustering a further complaint)

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LIFE.

Three Life Paths Appeared Yesterday

Over Louisiana Gumbo at Legal Sea Foods, Professor Graham Allison suggested to me Singapore’s unique position as a hub for independent analysis/opinions during this chapter of U.S.-China relations when the global discourse is increasingly polarized.

In a dusky café by a church, I chatted with a Singapore writer about MFA programs, novel-writing, and how we don’t fact-check public discourse in Singapore. She writes beautifully and two years ago, her incredibly honest post on her scholarship experience— Once Bonded — inspired me not to take the PSC scholarship. If you’re at that crossroads, this is a must-read. If you want to be a full-time writer, she said, be ready to accept that you will be poor.

The day ended with an absolute intellectual blast — a three-hour conversation with an ex-TF (teaching fellow). I came away with ten book/thinker recommendations after a wide-ranging, spontaneous discussion on intellectual history, internet sub-culture, Chinese politics, post-colonialism, speculative history, family diaspora, the culture of academia, etc. You are a good fit for grad school, my TF said, but every system has its own expectations. Don’t romanticize it and think you will have a lot of free time to write creatively.  

Dining Hall Pep Talk

“Why are you so hung up over a single bad grade? You study power and politics and systems and society. Can’t you see that you care so much about a grade because of conditioning from young? Getting an A used to matter, but does it matter that much now?” Marwah drills me.

She eats a piece of bread and I eat a slice of apple pie.

“Procrastination is not a waste of time. Total energy remains constant. When your kinetic energy goes down, the energy is still there. Except that now it’s potential energy,” she continues, voice crisp like a commander.

I nod, mesmerized by her oration.

She eats another piece of bread, slathering cream cheese. This time, I choose blueberry pie instead.

She tests me between chews, “You sit in bed looking at your phone for three hours versus you meditate by the river for three hours — which one makes you feel more guilty? Exactly, when you’re using your phone. We are indoctrinated by the older generation, who are wary of technology.”

A pause.

I said, “On a side note: when I’m with you, I always feel hungry.”

Selina Xu and Marwah Sabrah

Three days later, we eat 50000 Halloween candies/cheese cubes/digestive biscuits.

Global Consciousness

“I like that you situate part of it in China,” Professor Maya Jasanoff tells me over Faculty Dinner.

We have stories with a global consciousness about South Asia or Africa. Think: writers like Mohsin Hamid or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But, most writers of Chinese heritage writing the anglophone novel have tended to deal with identity, traditions, and generational trauma. (A generalization, perhaps. Feel free to suggest titles that prove otherwise — would love to read!!)

“Perhaps, you could write that,” she says.

I clasp my hands and silently murmur a quick prayer there and then.

“That’s the aspiration,” I say.

Talking to someone who sees the world humanistically is powerful and inspires faith — faith in our capacity to see outside the bubbles of our identities and the limits of the present; to think intelligently and independently beyond echo chambers, demagoguery, and establishment views; to recognize inherent within our own subjectivity, our ignorance; to empathize, imagine, and understand. Professor Jasanoff makes me want to be ardently, unwaveringly a humanist.

Maya Jasanoff Faculty Dinner

A Dose of Tough Love

On our weekly Friday lunches at Leverett, I whisper furiously to Shi Le, “I need to hear harsh things. I need your tough love.”

“First,” she said, “you cannot take a second cookie.”

After I visibly wither under her gaze, she calmly continues, “Secondly, you need to stop getting out of bed at noon. Since you need to hear this, listen: THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

“If life unravels, ask yourself what you have control over. You can control when you go to eat and when you sleep. So do that. Structure.”

Selina Xu and Wong Shi Le

Tracing the Dots

For two nights, Xin Min sleeps in my room.

On the last day, as she zips her luggage and I shuffle songs, she tells me, “I’ll leave at 10pm.”

We talk about the five things we want in life. We talk about our threshold of fulfillment.

It’s past 10. Her luggage is ready by the door.

“Ok, I’ll leave at 11pm.”

We talk about how to hold ourselves accountable, how to test aspirations.

She sits cross-legged on the floor and throws me suggestions, “You should post more often on your blog. Put each complete scene on your blog. Build Insta.”

The room is cold and we are quiet. Our conversation is meandering, our voices soft. My hands are numb but I’m thinking, How rare it is that someone will sit down with you and interrogate your dream. Brainstorm your life like it’s theirs, just for a moment. 

“That’s what I admire about the liberal arts education, you have ideas all over the place,” Xin Min says, “like dots.”

“Like dots?”

“You have many dots. The problem then is how to trace them and draw them into a constellation.”

We leave the room at 12:24am.

Selina Xu and Lee Xin Min

On Halloween

In the airy atrium at the Harvard Art Museums, my creative writing professor Claire Messud paints for us the world of a writer over lunch — there are expectations (perhaps, gendered), reviews, time/sacrifices/choices when one has children, and how 99% of writers can’t pay the bills with writing. But, still, we write on. A girl talked about how she quit her job and started bartending so she could have more time to write.

As I poked at my salad, I wondered about this weird instinct that compels us to create and live in words. We inscribe our place in the world with a frantic pen. We anchor our life in stories and cup them in our hands, hoping that strangers will read. We surrender to one vivid and continuous dream after another.

If writing is easy, anyone can be a writer. I think it’s a holy life; a moonkissed mind, a conduit — by choice.

***

If you’ve read till here, thank you for indulging me. x

Sending you sparks! ✨✨✨

Lots of love,

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[Story] Remembering Jamal Khashoggi

Author’s Note: Wrote this story in March. Today marks one year since the gruesome murder (and dismemberment) of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

One morning before class, on a misty pink spring morning, I went on Twitter for the first time in forever. Behold then: a trailer for CNN’s Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Secrets.”

The video automatically played the following snippet of conversation. It blanketed me in a sudden drift of coldness — as though some invisible, icy fingers were slowly wrapping around my body. 

“Why would you bring a bone saw to an interrogation?”

“Any saw could dismember a human being.”

“Why did they bring any saw?”

In the bright daylight, I felt physically sick. Many months after his gruesome death, a morning post-daylight savings time, the story of Jamal Khashoggi made me want to draw my knees up against myself, numbly rock back and forth, and take deep breaths — a muted pressure behind my temples to pray for redemption and the assurance of goodness. I looked into the intelligence gathered on the last moments of his death, and in an attempt at catharsis, I recreated it.

***

He must have drawn a quick, sharp intake of breath when he turned around the corner. He’s here, in this quiet district in Istanbul, picking up papers. Papers that would allow him to marry Cengiz, with her wet lashes brushing against her thin-rimmed glasses. Cengiz who is waiting outside. Cengiz who is Turkish. Turkish whilst he is Saudi.

The consulate is the same as last time. At least, at first glance, it is so. But, he is turning this way and that, entering deeper into this flaxen yellow labyrinth. Towards the heart of it, towards the papers that he has come here to get.

The thought — just briefly, like the caress of whiskers — must have touched his mind. Suggestively. They wouldn’t dare. Of course not. 

When he steps into the room, glancing up at the man who comes to meet him, he knows that those whiskers — ticklish, impossibly so — should have stung him. This man should have been some nice, slow bureaucrat, who might have asked for a photo or offered coffee.

“What are you doing here?” he asks the man-who-has-come-to-meet-him.

He is old now, he cannot run, and there are another five men behind this one and more slinking in the shadows of the door frame. He is already at the heart of the labyrinth, staring into the mouth of the abyss, mid-swallow. He should not have been able to recognize this man, but oh, he does. Though how he wishes that he doesn’t. Because this man-who-has-come, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, is only the teeth. The darkness behind him is the man he has played chess with from across oceans. MbS.

Mutreb speaks, “You are coming back.”

His glasses fog up. He grows suddenly aware of the mechanisms of his body, like a fish out of water with all senses enlarged. His veins powderizing, his windpipe constricting, his skin papery, prickling, poised to be peeled any moment now. Their fragility made apparent by what could only be a revelation of mortality.

“You can’t do that,” he says, keeping his voice steady but there’s a sheen of perspiration on his head. “People are waiting outside.”

The air-conditioning is on full blast. Nobody speaks for a moment.

He watches what could almost be a smile stretch over Mutreb’s face. Blink.

The men are on him. There’s no more dialogue. They are grabbing him by his arms, and he flounders, tripping on the hem of his thawb. Someone grabs him from behind, thick hands closing around his neck. Another palm, sweaty and hot, closes over his face.

He fights for air. Loud gasping. He is buried alive in billowing folds, smothering hands, violent fists, and that steel-like grip around his neck. His world is screaming. He thinks Cengiz ought to hear this cry that is penetrating and shattering the roof of the universe, but when his mouth finally forms the shape of words, he only hears himself from far away. The weak rasp of a drowning man:

“I can’t breathe, I can’t—”

There’s a scuffle like a final tumble.

Panting.

The fans whirl overhead.

***

The story was written back according to this CNN report: ‘I can’t breathe.’ Jamal Khashoggi’s last words disclosed in transcript, source says.

More recently, a detailed transcript of the conversation between Khashoggi and Mutreb has been released by the Daily Sabah, so my rendition is actually inaccurate: Saudi hit squad’s gruesome conversations during Khashoggi’s murder revealed.

May you rest in peace, Jamal,

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Confession: “I Was Born A Writer”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I lost that sense of destiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leila Slimani Harvard.jpeg

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

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

***

Lots of love on a revelatory day,

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Interning at CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS

Selina Xu Fareed Zakaria

Working at CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS has been one of the most interesting internship experiences I’ve had. It has exposed me to the specifics of producing a show for air, what it’s like to work at a place like CNN, and the excitement of dealing with ideas, international news, and incisive analysis on a day-to-day basis. Never in my life have I been this in tune with what’s happening around the world — it’s like keeping one’s finger on the pulse of geopolitics. As an intern, I have had the chance to pitch ideas, meet guests, and contribute to the technical side of the show — finding images and footage, time-coding, fact-checking, etc. The job has pushed me into unfamiliar and exciting terrains: I’ve written a book report on cybersecurity, worked on a live show featuring a guest on the streets from the Hong Kong protests, watched Fareed interview Nancy Pelosi at the Council on Foreign Relations, and pulled visual elements for topics ranging from the recent U.S. gun violence to G20 summit to the 1960s civil rights sit-in movement to the LGBTQ Pride Month.

It’s refreshing to examine news in a weekly format instead of the daily news cycle. More than highlighting headlines, GPS has been about analyzing news in an intelligent manner with multiple perspectives. The close-knit team provides a collaborative and open setting, where ideas from interns do matter. Fareed has also taken the time to have conversations with us. In short, this internship has utterly transformed the way I engage with international news.

If you’re someone at all interested in what lies at the intersection of international relations, media, journalism, or even storytelling at large, I highly recommend applying for this dynamic, interdisciplinary experience!!! 🌟💪💪

***

Q: So… why did you want to apply for this internship?

CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS is one of the leading foreign affairs shows in the world — what better place to learn about global affairs and how to write news/tell stories? The nature of the show — a weekly format that provides deep dives — brings together experts, cultural observers, world leaders, and other titans of their fields to think, analyze, and debate perspectives across the spectrum. It’s the antithesis to all that is disappointing in media today, and all the more inspiring because of its scope, ambition, depth, commitment to intellectual rigor, and adherence to facts (in a day and age when those don’t seem to matter as much to some audiences).

Click the image below to listen to the weekly podcast. 🌎💡🎥 

Fareed Zakaria GPS Podcast

Q: What have you focused on in your internship?

International relations – the shifting tides of global geopolitics, the unlikely stories in different parts of the globe, how to tell news and explore ideas visually with an eye on the facts (often the numbers tell the true story), U.S.-China relations which are close to my heart and which will dominate the changing world order for the decades ahead.

Q: What has been the most exciting part of the job?

Hearing from the guests & having my pitches picked!

Guests include political figures — for instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the first female President of Ireland Mary Robinson — as well as political experts/commentators like Ian Bremmer, Niall Ferguson, Thomas Friedman, and Zanny Minton Beddoes.

But nothing beats having your pitches picked and seeing them transformed for air, uttered by Fareed on screen, and produced to be shown on TV in millions of households around the world. My pitches for QOTW (Question of the Week) on robots, the WTO, and Brexit were chosen — I now know a bunch of random IR trivia, come hit me up! 😉 Check out the podcasts to catch these brief segments! 🥰🍀✨

Q: What have you learned/got out of your internship experience this summer?

I got a better sense of the global landscape beyond major headlines and the relentless chug of the news cycle. This internship has been eye-opening in the way it compellingly delved into key recurring international stories (e.g. the U.S.-China trade war, Brexit, Iran) but also investigated a transnational perspective on issues (white extremism as a global phenomenon, how U.S. gun legislation compares to other countries, conceptualizing climate justice across developed/developing but also gender lines etc.).

Q: Would you recommend the Director’s Internship program to another Harvard student?

Of course! The opportunities available are amazing — without the IOP (Institute of Politics), it would have likely been a lot harder to secure an offer in public service amid a huge pool of applicants. Many public service internships are also either unpaid or minimum wage, so the generous stipend that the Director’s Internship offers really makes a huge difference. With a fully-funded summer, and an incredibly helpful staff assisting your queries, providing guidance, and building community, the program is a fantastic way to delve into public service whole-heartedly.

Fareed Zakaria GPS CNN Intern

Happy 54th birthday, Singapore!

Happy happy National Day, all my Singaporean friends! 🎂🇸🇬✨

It’s weird how frequently I’ve thought of you, Singapore, in the day-to-day of my job. Like when the White House published a memo attacking China’s developing country status in the WTO and the first thing my eyes were glued onto in the text (read here) was Singapore. Or when it was LGBTQ Pride Month and we were looking for stills from different countries – Pink Dot’s Repeal 377A eventually made it onto the show, a brief glimpse, just for a second or two. 💗 Or when my boss tells me about his sons studying “Singapore Math,” which seriously cracks me up (it’s actually a thing in the U.S.).

Also, when you’re 54, I’m 21. This means I’m finally choosing between the dual nationalities which I’ve held for most of my life. (I was born in an Auckland hospital and got onto my first plane ride as a month-old tiny baby to Singapore.) But actually, the choice was made long ago. When I think of home, you are the first place that comes to mind. In a few days, I’ll be back on the island and will be officially taking my oath to be Singaporean only — for that, I’m grateful. Somehow, I’ve found you by choice instead of by birth or by heritage, and that makes our ties all the more precious and alive.

I was watching PM Lee’s NDP message on The Straits Times website today at work and he felt almost fatherly. I was enraptured by that familiarity — his inflections, mannerisms, the earnestness of SG politicians (of a technocrat breed), and inklings of the nanny state that really does seek to take care of you (I cannot imagine any U.S. politician genuinely saying, “Each one of us must strive to improve ourselves, do our best, and chase our dreams.”).

And, although you’re not perfect, you’re still mine. Somehow, being elsewhere around the world only makes me think of you — your ingenuity and almost strait-laced wholesomeness, your efficiency and embeddedness in a global nexus, and also your singlets and slippers, hawker centre uncles and aunties, lahs, humid heat, and all that fills my heart with a fierce fondness across the Pacific that can only be called love.

Happy 54th birthday, dear Singapore ❤️

Lots of love,

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