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,

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

🌟 07/10/2019 🦄

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now I’ve met her in person!!!

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

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

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

Selina Xu Amanda Lee Koe

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

Oops it’s 1:33AM. GOOD NIGHT.

Lots of love,

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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