[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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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. 🙂 

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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

Unlocking Your Dream College: Essay Tips, by a Harvard Student

Harvard_Wreath_Logo_1

Can John Harvard’s ghost tell me about the art of writing?

Here I share the process I went through in creating my Harvard application essays. 🍯 Other application tips can be found at Free Resources →

I applied to only one school in the US, so this post is definitely not about a tried-and-true method. This is how I did it personally, and bear in mind that you might find it helpful or not. So pick whatever inspiration you can get from this and, ultimately, follow your gut.

My favorite analogy for the entire college admissions affair is matchmaking. ✨ The entire affair involves composing unclichéd love letter after love letter (essays), presenting an authentic yet attractive résumé of your merits (the Common Application), being appraised in face-to-face conversations over coffee (alumni interviews), and having those around you vouch for your suit (recommendations).

So, how to write a heartfelt love letter to your dream college that is true to who you are? Some universal pointers ring true: be genuine (hmm, who likes a pretentious impostor in love? not me.); present a compelling but focused narrative of yourself (how are you best defined? think Linkedin with an emotional punch.); an unique insight that ties together your past, present, and future (show them what you will be bringing to and taking away from the relationship).

Bearing these pointers in mind, I’ll touch on each of the following:

  1. How important is the essay?
  2. How to brainstorm?
  3. How to present your topic?
  4. How to finally write the essay?

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  • What are the essays for? i.e. “Why should I care?”

A lot of international applicants tend to underestimate the importance of the essays and put in double the amount of time on pulling up their standardized test scores (SAT/ACT). While scores are definitely important, my personal advice would be to spend the most time and thought on your essays — above every other component.

From your high school transcript, lists of activities and honors, and teacher recommendations, the AO is trying to piece together a coherent picture of who you are. Your essays are the biggest canvas for you to add that crucial, app-defining stroke that pulls all those disparate threads together in a strong, clear narrative — all in one move.

Only the essays can do that.

Everything else (scores, activities, recommendations, grades) are just floating bones in the ether. The essay is the flesh that anchors them, makes sense of them (why is this girl playing the piano, reading thrillers and volunteering at a homeless shelter?) and settles them in their order in the universe of YOU THE APPLICANT (what matters most to you, how you think, how you see the world). 

In short, your essays configure the ‘individual’ that the AO sees, arranging the ‘bones’ of your application into a living, breathing person with a history and a story — a story in your own voice that should resonate and make the AO advocate for you with fervor during the committee meeting. 💓

  • How to brainstorm my essay topic? i.e. “I’ve done a million random and interesting things, how do I choose what to zoom in on? Should I just write a 650-word autobiography of my life???” 

Better than everyone else, you need to know why you should be getting into your dream college (if you have one, that is). Many people are unsure of why they should be admitted even after submitting their entire application. I believe that is a huge mistake. In my opinion, the pithy platitude to ‘love yourself first before you can find true love’ is gold.

 

Love yourself first, so you know what you deserve

there is no such book, in case you were wondering

 

This means you must, before you even open a blank Word Document, at least attempt to answer: I should get into my dream college because ________________________________.

Please don’t be modest! 😎

To facilitate the process, picture this. You have two minutes alone in the lift with the Dean of Admissions of your dream college and you have his/her full attention in this short span of time to sell yourself as an applicant. You’ve got to make the elevator pitch of your life.

What will you say?

The thing is, the whole application process is eerily analogous to the scene I just described. You only have your essays to make that direct pitch to the AO, but the AO doesn’t have a lifetime to get to know you; instead, your application will probably get a few hours of scrutiny on average. That’s the only shot you have, so make full use of what you get.

That’s tough because not everyone has done that life-defining one thing which absolutely screams to be meditated on. I was having trouble in the brainstorming stage since all my activities seemed pretty on par with one another, and I decided to do this:

Step 1: Create an ‘elevator pitch’, namely ‘Why should I get into my dream college?’ Mine came down to this: 1) writing for a cause; 2) passion for history, culture, politics, truth, and the narratives we tell ourselves; 3) international exposure and reconciling contradictory perspectives (travels and reading). Tips: Think along the lines of what sets you apart from other applicants. The T-shaped (well-lopsided) student is almost always more attractive than the O-shaped (well-rounded) one. Essentially, in this pitch, you think about what horizontal attributes you have (e.g. intellectual imagination and curiosity across disciplines, and strength of character) as well as the vertical (that which is normally called a ‘spike‘ — an in-depth passion, skill or talent that goes far deeper than your peers).

Step 2: This elevator pitch is going to be the personal narrative you drive home in EVERY SINGLE component of your application before your essays come in — this means your honors, activities, teacher recommendations (send your bullet points to your teachers for their reference), and additional information (if utilized).

It’s all about internal consistency. Your application should stand as a coherent story, with different parts reinforcing, resonating with, and complementing each other.

Step 3: Review your application thus far (your essays are still unwritten at this point) and think from the perspective of a stranger who is reading it all for the first time: what will you be most curious about this applicant by now? What needs to be expounded on the most? What is left dangling and untied? Whichever bullet point in your personal narrative that is, it is a perfect candidate for your Common Application essay. Then, tackle another strand of your personal narrative in the supplementary essay (if any). Note: Not every bullet point in your personal narrative needs an essay to catapult itself into the AO’s consciousness; it’s your judgment call.

Each essay component of your application should ideally show a different dimension of your exciting brilliant multi-dimensional self.

  • How should I approach my chosen topic? i.e. “How can I make the AOs sit up — eyes shining and pen furiously annotating — on a blurry caffeinated night after reading ten essays in a row? 😵 “

Generally speaking, there are two main ways your essay can make a powerful impact: either your experience is one in a million OR you go through a pretty ordinary experience but arrive at a revelation that only you can reach.

The latter, what I call the uniqueness of insight, might just work better. The insight that was drawn, the reflections gained, and the perspective with which you view the experience are far more important than the specific topic itself. When you have a powerful insight, the experience does not matter much per se except as a plot device to lead the reader into the refreshing embrace of your insight.

Some questions that might lead you to deeper insights:

On experiences: Why is this experience part of your personal narrative but might not be for others? How has it uniquely shaped you in unexpected ways (think: personal growth)? What do you want to differently in the future now that you’ve had this experience?

On personality traits: How do you see the world differently? Are you able to uncover any small moments with big meaning that might pass others by? Who are you by the virtue of your motley of ideas?

On spikes: By virtue of the depth of your craft or the intensity of experiences it has brought you, what do you understand about your area of strength that others do not, or what higher revelation has that given you about how you want to lead your life?

💪

  • Now, write the essay — write it like a good writer, like a good storyteller.

The craft of good writing is sometimes intuitive, but more often than not it depends on practice — reading lots of good writing, imitating good writing, and discovering your own style.

Read the most evocative, atmospheric and powerful scenes in your favorite stories — see how they hooked you with dialogue, described an intense moment, and painted the setting. Books on writing such as The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White will be worth the time investment if you are not confident about your writing and need guidance. In particular, read successful college application essays (I must have read close to a hundred) to see how they do it in a limited word count.

There is a wide pool of successful college application essays online, but be discerning about them. After all, each essay must be looked at in the context of everything else, a context which you are not privy to. The college application essay is not meant to be read in a vacuum. Hence, there will be successful essays that will make you scratch your head and wonder what earned them the acceptance. A mindset that is helpful when reading such essays is to ask ‘what works for me and what doesn’t?’ and ‘why do I like this but not that?’, and to add those observations and reflections into your writer’s arsenal.

Here are the people & resources that helped me tremendously (to varying degrees):

  • Various editions of 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays 
  • http://www.collegeessayguy.com/
  • The people who gave feedback for my essays (3 is a good number — someone who knows you well, someone who doesn’t, and someone who is a good writer). Tips: seniors in the colleges that you are applying to can be great critics. Someone who doesn’t know you well can tell you what impression they have of you from your essay (if their impression wildly deviates from your personal narrative, it’s a warning sign to make some changes). It is also extremely important to have the tenacity to edit! If you can’t find anyone suitable to give you feedback, putting the draft down and looking at it again with new eyes around 1-2 weeks later can be immensely constructive.
  • The New York Times publishes a handful of college application essays on money, work or social class each year. There are some gems — I’ve linked the 2015 edition below.
  • I’m also making my Harvard supplementary essay available to all my blog subscribers. After subscribing at the sidebar on the right, if you’d like to read it, sign up here → 

Finally, good luck! It’s a daunting, stressful time for everyone, but it is worth every last ounce of your focus and creativity. Go for it, believe in yourself, and ultimately, as it is in matchmaking, leave it up to destiny. While you’ve chosen your dream college, she needs to choose you too; and how that unfolds is as unpredictable as the human heart. So, know that sometimes who you love might not love you back, but there’ll always be your true love waiting – around an unexpected bend, the very personification of the finer irony of the vagaries of life. Love boldly, and the college you will belong at will find you unexpectedly.

Feel free to share this with whoever you think might find it helpful. 🍀 And see you on the other side!

Lots of love,

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