I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna or on any river for that matter to be perfectly honest.
Not in July or any month have I had the pleasure—if it is a pleasure— of fishing on the Susquehanna.
I am more likely to be found in a quiet room like this one— a painting of a woman on the wall,
a bowl of tangerines on the table— trying to manufacture the sensation of fishing on the Susquehanna.
There is little doubt that others have been fishing on the Susquehanna,
rowing upstream in a wooden boat, sliding the oars under the water then raising them to drip in the light.
But the nearest I have ever come to fishing on the Susquehanna was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia
when I balanced a little egg of time in front of a painting in which that river curled around a bend
under a blue cloud-ruffled sky, dense trees along the banks, and a fellow with a red bandanna
sitting in a small, green flat-bottom boat holding the thin whip of a pole.
That is something I am unlikely ever to do, I remember saying to myself and the person next to me.
Then I blinked and moved on to other American scenes of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,
even one of a brown hare who seemed so wired with alertness I imagined him springing right out of the frame.
I write this memo from my new apartment in Berkeley, which Kevin and I will be calling home for the foreseeable future! It’s lovely here—the weather is perennially nice, I’m surrounded by the nicest plants I’ve ever seen in my life, and our first-apartment-out-of-college is pretty ideal, too. Since I’m already in an August state of mind, I’ll keep this monthly memo short (I had to really motivate myself to write it, frankly). It’s not that July seems a long time ago, but rather that I’m no longer sure whether I still think of units of time in months anymore. Anyway…
This is my second time in Berkeley, but my first time living on the west coast. While the sun is out every day, I’ve noticed that it doesn’t start getting sunny-sunny until after 10 AM (typically), which means that I have more time in the morning to go on a run while it’s still overcast outside. Right outside our living room window are a cluster of trees with spiky, burnt leaves and softer fern-like things springing out the top. They’re not the most radiant plants in the world, but I’ve grown fond of them nonetheless. Our neighbors to the west grow a lot of trees (even a lemon tree), and I have them to thank for our kitchen view; if I look directly out the window, I can imagine for a moment that we’re in the woods.
I spent a lot of time on Pinterest and Apartment Therapy in July, daydreaming of how I’d furnish this home when we got here. After all, this is the first place I’m living in as an adult that I get to furnish myself! That being said, a lot of my interior decor dreams needed a reality check once we got here. Alas! At heart, I’m still a functionality/budget over aesthetics/$$$ girl. Our dining room table, TV stand, coffee table, and chairs are currently all from IKEA (which is fine, IKEA is great for staples). Once the rest of our stuff arrives (I imagine our worldly possessions are in a truck somewhere, stuck in traffic) we’ll have a better sense of how to furnish this space into a cozy home. I suppose I feel a bit like the speaker in “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” (by Billy Collins, one of my favorite poets), “trying to manufacture the sensation / of fishing on the Susquehanna.” Trying to imagine an experience from a painting or a photo, sometimes so viscerally that it feels within reach.
🎬 We watched a lot of Lucifer last month, and I honestly think the show does better job of exploring themes such as vulnerability, agency, and desire as the seasons progress. I was giving someone life advice a few days ago and realized that what I was saying was inspired by Dr. Linda (the therapist) from the show. In some ways, Lucifer is really a show about how to manage your emotions.
📚 My reading draught ends now! After forgetting how to read for a very long time, I’m determined to turn reading back into an essential life habit this month. I did finish Joshua Wong’s Unfree Speech on the plane, though. It’s a very moving and heartbreaking read at this particular juncture in time.
🎶 Just when I thought I had everything under control, Taylor Swift decided to drop an ENTIRE ALBUM!!! I had less than 24 hours to emotionally prepare and the album landed on the day I flew to Berkeley, too. It’s actually quite nice, easing into a new chapter of my life with a new Taylor album. I will probably be writing a separate review of folklore soon. My current favorites from the record are: cardigan, exile, august.
💬 Word of the month, and biggest distraction of the month: Pinterest. For reasons explained above…
The festival is here we play football by the door Even in a tight space my son can nail a kickoff Skilled at the nutmeg, I plan to place the ball Between the tree and hedge, a corner The shadows are dark as always
The festival is here my son games with cousins Real Madrid and EFL are down 12 to 0 Beckham fouls Beckham—Penalty! Penalty! I turn the paper’s looming headlines The shady real estate agent holds law above family Cackling, he slaps yesterday’s self onto the paper’s ass
The festival is here we eat meat Spit bones, noisily slurp soup The paddles they lift on TV are neat as chopsticks High as splashes. We down all the Tsingtao And our eyes jump into the Shing Mun River To rinse away last year’s bad luck
The festival is here we pick wampee fruits My wife says they’re sweet I say sour The darker ones are ripest, she says I bring a bunch to my son he says no I bring one to my daughter she walks away
The festival is here news of murder is on TV Steam rises and mother’s soup grows tastier Father says you must wait to slaughter chicken After plain zongzi our table needs a little sugar
The festival is here I stop asking about homework Yet my son asks why the man jumped in I say perhaps, perhaps he had something to prove Aha, but in truth he proved he could not swim Yes, in today’s age, this is why you learn to swim
The festival is here we get to talk nonsense We sing and forget lyrics We gather and go home The festival is here we dive into the cross harbor tunnel Thankful for the whir of engines Hypnotizing us like waves
🖼️ Like most things that are turned in late, this monthly memo is brief, scattered, retrospective, and a bit lame (sorry). June was a month of big life-changes for me (on paper, mostly) although life feel the same-ish. I guess that’s how the state-of-the-world is, too—laws are signed and orders are passed, but they just seem to formalize or ignore a concurrent reality. Much like the translated poem I’ve included above, this piece still feels like a work-in-progress, but here it is anyway.
🎬 This month, I re-watched Knives Out (still satisfying the second time round), wrapped up Legends of Tomorrow with Kevin, finally finished watching My Cousin Vinny, and also watched the first season of Rhythm + Flow, which is like the hip-hop version of The Voice. I’ve never really been an avid listener of rap music but thanks to Rhythm + Flow, I now have a better understanding and appreciation of the genre. Truly some of the best rhymes are found in rap verses.
🎶 HAIM’s highly-anticipated 3rd album, Women in Music Part III, debuted this month and the sisters never disappoint. While the promo singles they released earlier this year are still (to my ear) the main bangers from the album, most HAIM songs get better after several listens—especially when heard live. All in all, I think they’ve strategized their music-release-during-quarantine very cleverly. Other songs that have been on repeat this month include Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” (a timely tune, as I moved out of Hyde Park), and Jawsh 685’s “Laxed – Siren Beat” (a TikTok hit).
📖 Tragically, I did not read much in June, unless you count many tweets, the Illinois Rules of the Road handbook, and USCIS instructions as “literature.” However, I am hoping to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and finish reading Joshua Wong’s book in July. I feel that my writing has been dry and drab recently and I think I can chalk it up to the utter disintegration of my reading habits….
💬 June’s word of the month is cul-de-sac, a term that seems to crop up everywhere for me. I encountered it multiple times in Legends of Tomorrow as a recurring trope, then in a NYT crossword (I’ve also used “sac” in my own crosswords), and then IRL in the streets of Naperville. Cul-de-sac is one of those words that I sometimes hear, know exists, yet never really need to use in daily lingo. I feel like it is a very American concept, particularly in relation to suburban life. It’s also a phrase that can sound kind of fancy (it is French, after all), until you translate it plainly: dead end. 😬
On a metaphorical, large-scale level, I wonder whether big movements happening in both the US and Hong Kong can be compared to cul-de-sacs, passages that lead nowhere. I experienced a similar frustration when I was learning to drive in the suburbs. What’s the point of driving into a cul-de sac if you just end up exiting the same way you came in?
In urban planning, cul-de-sacs were originally integrated to create safety and connectivity, but they now sometimes come under fire for being unsafe, and even bad for your health (residents living in cul-de-sacs often need to drive to get anywhere, increasing car exhaust levels as well as safety concerns for kids playing outside their home).
As we navigate the fourth month of quarantine, I also feel that the pandemic situation in the US feels a bit like driving in a cul-de-sac, going in circles without making progress. But perhaps that is taking the metaphor too far…
Anyway, I will aim to publish July’s monthly memo before the month is up. I’ll be pressing “publish” in Berkeley when the time comes!
This weekend, Kevin and I got engaged! 💍We have been together for the past three years, and have known for a long time that we are in it for the long haul. It comes as no surprise to our close friends and family that we’ve decided to tie the knot, and I feel very lucky for all the twists and turns in my life that led me here. Okay, enough sappiness…
Naturally, we have been thinking a lot about “engagement”—particularly, how it happens. Traditionally, an engagement follows a proposal—usually an offer extended by the groom to be, who gets down on one knee and whips out a ring. Typically, the ring is expensive. And in some cases, the proposal is a surprise—or a public event, where onlookers gasp and gawk.
Earlier on, Kevin and I had floated different possibilities to each other. Maybe “I” would propose, hence flipping the stereotypical proposal process on its head. Or maybe we would both plan to surprise the other person at a specific time. Or maybe we would just skip the “proposal” and focus on the marriage. Over time, however, it became very clear that no matter how we handled the situation, we should approach it the same way we approach our relationship: by working as a team, and doing things our own way.
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, an engagement (訂婚) is a family event that comes with a number of traditional procedures (禮俗). Usually, a special meal is prepared and families from both sides have to be present. However, in the US, an engagement is typically a more personal affair, something arranged between the couple. Of course, what I’ve described is just a reductive explanation of how engagements transpire in different parts of the world. But they do usually share one thing in common—an engagement ring.
Ah, the ring—’twas a source of stress for both of us early on in this process. Did I want an engagement ring? Yes, but I also knew I didn’t want Kevin to shell out $$$ for an engagement ring that I’d eventually trade for a wedding band (I’m not the wear-two-rings-on-one-finger type). I can think of so many ways to better spend that money. I also knew that nothing would stress Kevin out more than picking a ring out by himself, since we like to make big decisions together. So, if we were to get an engagement ring, we’d pick one out together. And I did notwant to ring-shop online—I wanted to try the ring on in person. Then came our next challenge: due to the pandemic, all the shops were closed. What next?
Kevin and I had planned to get engaged and married around this time, and the timing would have been perfect—my mom was scheduled to visit the US in May, so she would have been here to celebrate with us. However, I reiterate: the pandemic happened. We realized that we had to improvise… which brings me to the ring.
I have been beadmaking since I was young, for both my mom and my aunt enjoy making beaded jewelry. Almost all of the jewelry I’ve worn in my life has been handmade by them, and this is a big reason why I never wanted to pierce my ears; my favorite earrings were clip-ons that they made using beads, thread, and wire:
Last December, when I returned to Hong Kong for the holidays, I started beadmaking again. In fact, I started to make rings. Here’s a sample at some of my creations:
So when I returned to Chicago in January, I brought with me a box of beads. And last month, my aunt shipped me even more beads (alongside masks, bless her).
So although Kevin and I could not go ring shopping in person, we had everything we needed to make a very special ring right at home. And given the number of rings I’ve been making since December, I think it’s safe to say that I knew my beadmaking experience would come in clutch very soon…
MAKING THE RING
Both Kevin and I are very hands-on people; we enjoy DIY, making food and supplies from scratch, fixing furniture on our own without calling the landlord (well, I guess he enjoys that), etc. So constructing a ring together made sense and seemed very fun (unlike stressfully shopping for a $$ ring).
To make the band, we followed a very simple beading technique that I use for almost all my rings. We used fishing string—which feels symbolic since Kevin and I have very nice memories fishing in Alabama and on our first camping trip together.
We initially considered a different centerpiece, one made using beads and pearls. Here was an early candidate—a sunflower!
However, we both then thought that it might be better to have something more prominent as the centerpiece. Looking through my jewelry box, we found the gem you now see in the picture. It was originally attached to a pair of my earrings, but it sometimes fell off. So I decided to just remove both of them (I have jewelry tweezers at home). As you can see, the earrings look just fine without the beads. Here’s another fun fact about these earrings: I bought them in Mongkok while Kevin waited for me to make up my mind for like, 40 minutes. So in a kind of sweet way, they remind me of Hong Kong—and Kevin’s indefatigable patience.
The next step was to affix the gem onto the ring. Ultimately, the best way to go about it was to glue the gem onto the beads using Gorilla Glue. Here’s trial 1 (spoiler: it didn’t work). The glue work was kind of messy and bubbly, and the band itself was also too loose.
So we tried a different technique… As you can see in the photo below, we altered the beading of the band so that the gem could actually sit on the ring more comfortably (thus leading to a cleaner gluing process).
Before finally tying the ring together with a surgeon’s knot, I wore it for a while (loosely tied) to make sure it was the right size. We also had to glue the gem back on a few times (lol). But here it is now, looking quite good!
I’ve been thinking about the Taylor Swift song “Paper Rings,” which contains this lovely line: “I like shiny things, but I’d marry you with paper rings.” In truth, I have been thinking about that song since last summer (lol). But I also think it’s notable to mark the difference between Taylor’s first worldwide hit, “Love Story,” and “Paper Rings.” In “Love Story” she sings about a prince who “knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring and said ‘Marry me Juliet’….” In “Paper Rings,” we see a more practical, less fairytale, yet just as romantic version of marriage. For ultimately what bonds two people together is the relationship they share and their commitment. A ring, shiny as it is, shouldn’t be at the center of any engagement. One day, this engagement ring is going to rust and I might just tuck it away somewhere. But the relationship that forged it is everlasting. 😊
In my front yard live three crape myrtles, crying trees We once called them, not the shadiest but soothing During a break from work in the heat, their cool sweat
Falling into us. I don’t want to make more of it. I’d like to let these spindly things be Since my gift for transformation here proves
Useless now that I know everyone moves the same Whether moving in tears or moving To punch my face. A crape myrtle is
A crape myrtle. Three is a family. It is winter. They are bare. It’s not that I love them. Every day. It’s that I love them anyway.
🖼️ This month, Jericho Brown won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, becoming the first black and queer writer to win the award. His poem The Trees is exactly what I needed this month: a gentle, although sorrowful reminder that familial love, complicated as it may be, is often unconditional.
Many people assume that I was born in May because of my name, and although I was a March baby, it’s true that I have a particular affinity with the month of May. This month, I’ve been making crosswords (more on that later) and I’ve noticed that my favorite words to hide in a grid are names. Names have the quality of being both unique and shared; everyone has their own name, but chances are someone or something else has your name, too (unless you’re X Æ A-12, whose name was recently changed to X Æ A-Xii). So it’s a beautiful thing to find your name in the world, and while I’m no astrologist, I’ve always thought that the month of May has powers to clarify my life.
In many ways, this May has been a month of mourning. The COVID-19 death toll in America surpassed 100,000. George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police on May 25. Hong Kong received heartbreaking news. As many of us shelter in place at home, how do we process the sweeping loss that connects us all?
French writer Georges Péréc famously wrote the novel La Disparition (translated as The Void , The Vanishing, or The Vanish’d in English) without a single e. When I was younger I used to think the novel was a gimmick. But e is essential in French; it appears in most words, including je (I), mère (mother), and père (father). Raised in post-war France, Péréc lost his family at a young age. His novel, devoid of a single e, reckons with loss and trauma. What is louder than silence? Don’t the subjects of our writing and concentration hide in our texts, like clued answers in a crossword? In The Trees, Jericho Brown uses the motif of a crying tree to show us sorrow instead of directly describing his family. The poem is short, and we don’t get a clear picture of the people implicated in its final stanzas—but through a trio of crape myrtles, Brown tells us exactly what we need to know.
I have been thinking about how I can write about Hong Kong without talking directly about Hong Kong. How I can contribute and continue to be a part of the city that raised me. How I can grow older, moving across this complicated country while holding on to home. Maybe to write about Hong Kong is to leave it out entirely, like an e that anchors a language. Perhaps I may write about Hong Kong by telling you about Chicago, a city that is stubbornly flat, mostly winter, and divided into grids. In Chicago, I mostly live in one language. I use the oven when I cook. I don’t always like to use public transit, and don’t like to take the train home late at night. But like many other places in this world, Chicago has a long history of protest, and had to learn to rebuild itself after a fire. Have I ever fought for Chicago? I’m not sure.
I find it curious that, despite the absence of e‘s in La Disparition, Georges Péréc’s name is always on the book cover—often alongside a giant E. Many e’s appear on the cover of the book, as if the book itself is bound by the absence it so diligently marks. Perhaps there’s some relief to be found in the fact that Georges, even when weighed down by the loss of e, held four in his own name.
So, what’s in a name? In the wake of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s deaths, the hashtag #SayHisName went viral on the Internet. The New York Times printed 100 names of the 100,000 people who lost their lives to COVID-19 on its front page. In the abyss of loss, names echo to shape the human lives and stories that once were. Once spoken, they become something we share and acknowledge. So every May, I am grateful for 31 days of feeling my name resonate with the world around me. One of the poems I’ve been translating this month, 字典 (“Dictionary”), contains the following line:
要碰上的字 終會碰上 那麽日子裏新生的事物呢 該如何對應？
one will always meet The words one is meant to meet What about the things born every day How should we name them?
This month, when so many lives and possibilities have been lost, may we hold on to names.
🎬 Alrighty, I’m going to wrap up the rest of this memo hurriedly. The TV I watch nowadays is basically whatever Kevin watches. So this means I finished watching The Mandalorian and watched some superhero TV from the CW network (Flash, Supergirl, etc.) this month. We also watched some of the animated Beauty and the Beast — did you know that the film was supposedly Disney’s first “feminist” film? I also started watching the Bon Appetit YouTube videos, which truly live up to their hype. I wish I could elaborate more on this section but my screen-life is a blur these days…
📚 A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean – This is one of my favorite short stories of all time and I’ll never forget the deep pang in my heart I felt the first time I read it. A River Runs Through It uses the art of fly fishing to tell a story of brotherhood and love, and it captures so much of the thorny emotions felt between siblings: pride, helplessness, love. Fun fact 1: MacLean was the William Rainey Harper Professor at UChicago! Fun fact 2: Brad Pitt starred in the film adaptation.
“Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as “our brother’s keepers,” possessed of one of the oldest and possible one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting instincts.
I also started reading Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, and the sentences in his stories are gorgeously woven. What a formidable talent.
🎶 I don’t have anything too profound to say about the music I’ve been listening to this month… here are some highlights!
HAIM – Don’t Wanna Artie Shaw – Cross Your Heart Carly Rae Jepsen – Felt This Way and Stay Away All of Taylor Swift’s acoustic songs from the “Live From Paris” concert Taylor Swift – Paper Rings
💬This month’s word of the day is, undoubtedly, “crosswords.” I made a crossword for each day of the month, and you can play all of them here. I also am working on an essay about translation and crosswords, which I hope to publish soon… that’s all for now! More soon~
Sit down. Inhale. Exhale. The gun will wait. The lake will wait. The tall gall in the small seductive vial will wait will wait: will wait a week: will wait through April. You do not have to die this certain day. Death will abide, will pamper your postponement. I assure you death will wait. Death has a lot of time. Death can attend to you tomorrow. Or next week. Death is just down the street; is most obliging neighbor; can meet you any moment.
You need not die today. Stay here–through pout or pain or peskyness. Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.
Graves grow no green that you can use. Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.
Gwendolyn Brooks, “To the Young Who Want to Die”
My monthly memo is a day late, aaaah! As you read, please think of “this month” as April, which is when I began writing this piece.
🖼️Every April you hear someone say “April is the cruellest month,” and T.S. Eliot’s words—composed in post-WWI England—ring particularly true now. Yet the poem I want to spotlight this month is Gwendolyn Brooks’ beautiful reminder that cruelty can pass, and that hope is generative. Green’s your color. As we enjoy warmer days, I’m sometimes taken aback anew by the influential power of natural surroundings. I grew up with the sea and the mountains as neighbors, and have always relied on nature to shape the way I feel and create. I love how the day-to-day transformations of trees tell us that change is on its way. These sweeping gestures, like the sunlight hitting the trees just right, or a night’s rain forming a makeshift pond for ducklings, are blessings. These days, it often feels that nothing is more reassuring than green.
I guess “not much” happened in April, although the start of the month does feel a lifetime away. My brother’s 2-week quarantine period ended, and we celebrated with a hearty fried-chicken dinner from Harold’s. My little sister celebrated her 21st birthday (aaaah!) so we celebrated with green tea cheesecake. Another big event I’d be remiss to omit: this month, our apartment united in a concerted effort to drive out the mice in our apartment, although I regret to say that a few probably remain, alongside their telltale droppings. We did find and trap a mouse in our sink, though—that traumatic memory remains stark. This month, I also cut my roommates’ hairs (all boys), watched Kevin grow out his beard and then finally shave it, and revived my foodstagram. What have I noticed about myself this April? I am emotionally appreciative of things that may seem mundane, like my glasses (remarkably clear after cleaned) and my two precious stuffed dogs (my mom drew their portrait this month!). I am also relentlessly distractible, prone to multitasking at a desk that has become a workstation for too many tasks. And I know even more now that my body relies on movement, be it dancing in my room or going on walks, to stay sound and sane.
They say April showers bring May flowers, and I am—as always—thrilled for the coming of May, a month I tend to over-symbolize (I can’t help it! I’m May!).
🎬 This month, we not only caught up on, but eagerly await every new episode of Clone Wars, Season 7. Now the show is the whole apartment’s Friday night bonding activity. Star Wars has been a big part of my life ever since I was young, influencing my fashion (one too many Star Wars t-shirts), usernames (I am “maytheforce” on Instagram), and holiday plans (new movies tend to come out in December). But I never thought Star Wars would return to me in the form of an animated series during the Quarantine of 2020. Aside from Clone Wars, Kev and I have also been watching Jane the Virgin, which many friends told me to watch years ago. I guess quarantine is when you find time for things you put on the back burner, right? Wish the same could be said for my longstanding plans to write more! Jane the Virgin is totally up my alley, though—the show is centered on female protagonists, Jane is a writer, there’s tons of meta-narration (which is probably my favorite literary device), and it’s a comedy. I used to always think that books are where I find uncanny parallels to my own life, but this month I’ve realized that I find them in film as well. But, fear not—no parallels are to be found in the reality TV show Too Hot to Handle, which Kev and I also watched this month. It’s a reality TV dating show with an AI “big brother” named “Lana” who scrutinized the contestants’ every move…
📖 Should I set a goal to spend more time reading books than watching TV next week? Anyway… I finished Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. It’s a heartrending read about a Korean family’s journey through generations during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It was hard to get into the novel at first, and it contains a number of scenes that are difficult to read, but once you’re past the 200 page mark you can’t put it down! I’ve also started reading Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong activist who was one of the leaders of 2014’s Occupy Movement. Joshua is a controversial figure in Hong Kong, of course, and a household name. And I’ve been reading about him in the news since the early 2010s. So why am I reading Unfree Speech now? I guess it’s a way for me to revisit a part of Hong Kong’s recent political history that ties so crucially into its present and future.
🎵Songs that have defined my month include…
Taylor Swift — “Shake It Off” — I have always wanted to choreograph a solo jazz routine to this song and this month, I finally did it! I may post a routine breakdown here next month.
Red Prysock – “Jump For George” — Two of my friends and I decided to collaborate on choreographing a section of this song. I’d never heard it before, but it was fun to choreograph!
“1973” — James Blunt — Does quarantining make you nostalgic? Real question. Nostalgia is important in Ling Ma’s “Severance,” a novel about a pandemic, and I wonder whether being on lockdown encourages me to cook meals that are closer to home and listen to older music. Anyway, I used to love this song and I love it again now.
Conan Gray’s new album came out, and his style is a blend of Taylor Swift and Lorde. So it’s unsurprising that he’s on my music radar.
Laura Marling, one of my all-time-fav musicians, also dropped her album Song For Our Daughter this month, plus is hosting a series of Instagram live guitar tutorials!
💬 My word of the month is Crossword. But as I’m already a day late to posting this month’s memo, I’ll elaborate on why in a future post! For now, I leave you with one of May’s Minis:
I thought of walking round and round a space Utterly empty, utterly a source Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place In our front hedge above the wallflowers. The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high. I heard the hatchet’s differentiated Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh And collapse of what luxuriated Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all. Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole, Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere, A soul ramifying and forever Silent, beyond silence listened for.
Sonnet 8 from Clearances by Seamus Heaney
🖼️ For a long time, March has been a complicated month for me and my family. March is beginning and ending; celebration and grief; life and death. But perhaps it is this way for much of the world, too, for this is the month in which winter melts into spring while sunlight stays around for longer, beaming its way through the living room even at dinnertime.
When I first visited America, always in the summer, what I loved most was the longevity of sun. Here, the sun rose early and took its time to set. As a child, I was entranced by how light lingered, elongating an ordinary day.
Did I ever have an “American Dream”? I never thought of my feelings towards the US in such terms before, but sometimes you only recognize the shape of a feeling when it is ending. At 18, I made the decision to come to the US because this country produced so much of the art and literature I loved. In America, the parking lots were the size of soccer fields, universities were prestigious and promising, and the sun always seemed to be shining. As a teenager living in one of the densest cities in the world, I felt that America was where I’d find space and freedom—the blessing to do whatever I wanted.
In many ways, I found what I was looking for here. Chicago has become my second home; it’s a place that has shaped my thoughts and my future. But this March, even as I make plans to stay in this country, I know that my “American Dream” has somewhat splintered. Perhaps it’s the convergence of political crisis (I am talking about the primaries, yes) and public health emergency that has finally broken me. But I think part of it is also watching people around me earlier this month shrug off the coronavirus when Asian countries (and Asian people abroad) have been compromised, traumatized, and stigmatized by COVID-19 since January. Oftentimes, the feeling that you can do whatever you want has large-scale repercussions.
Recently, I came across an article about the pandemic titled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” I began this piece by saying that March is a complicated month for my family, and that’s because 10 years ago this month, my dad lost his fight with lung cancer. 16 years ago, he was diagnosed—at the same time SARS descended on Hong Kong. Now, as I read about ventilator shortages across the country, I think about how my dad depended on complicated respiratory equipment to survive. I think about how regular hospital visits wove themselves into the fabric of my childhood years. COVID-19 impacts not only those who are infected with the disease, but also anyone who depends on emergency services, medical machines, and hospital access. When SARS came to Hong Kong, I had no idea that my family had not one, but two deadly illnesses to worry about. All I knew, as a kid who disliked going to school, was that I got to stay home. Now, I wonder how many of my favorite childhood memories originated from the SARS era. I always like to believe that my memories are more accurate than they are.
When I was in Hong Kong this December, I catalogued my old diaries (over a dozen; I was a prolific journaller). I revisited my diary entries from March 2010, confident that I’d find, in the spaces of grief, my own handwriting; proof that I had journalled my way through crisis. After all, this is what I remember doing—writing, writing my way through grief. To my surprise, I found nothing. An absence, a clearance. The final poem from Seamus Heaney’s sequences of sonnets “Clearances,” written in memory of his late mother, comes to mind.
Grief takes the form of its subject, loss. And, as something that is difficult to talk about, even with family, grief is deafeningly silent. When you see an empty restaurant, a shuttered shop, or a silent campus, you are observing grieving spaces. It is little wonder that so many people I know risked passing through germy airports to return to their families despite travel warnings. To grieve apart always accentuates the loss, for grief itself is a vacancy.
But March, as I said at the beginning, is also about celebrations. March is, and it almost feels underwhelming to say this, my birthday—and not just mine, but my brother’s, too. To have a twin means to grow up with someone who has been with you since there was nothing at all; to have a companion in the countering of loss. For the first time in four years, Henry and I got to spend our birthday together, and I don’t take this gift lightly. He flew in from Syracuse last Sunday, and the days before the flight were turbulent and nerve-wracking; Henry’s flight was hastily booked, cancelled, rescheduled, and then rescheduled again. He was flying in from an airport near New York City (as I type this, my poor brother is still in room-quarantine). Everything had to be cleaned—Henry himself, his clothes, his suitcases. While he showered, I stepped outside to where we had left our shoes. When I picked up his boots, prepared to wipe them down, I glanced at the sole and saw—to my surprise—that we’d both been wearing the same shoes that day—Clarks. What are the odds? Twinning, as they say.
I am lucky that I get to be quarantined with Kevin, Henry, and our great roommates. I’m lucky that I get to work from home, and that I can FaceTime my mom and sister. In times of crisis, it always feels trite but crucial to count your blessings. March 2020 has been a master class in escalation, but also a lesson in patience. It has been a month of cancellations and grief—but also celebrations and sunlight, the miracle of watching the days last longer. As we continue our social distancing, alone or with family, we are joined in protecting our loved ones and strangers. As March turns into April, let us hopefully move past our grief, fill in the vacancies, and safeguard the coming of spring.
🎬 Okay, I’m going to be concise for the rest of this memo. This month, Kevin and I finished seasons 4 and 5 of Clone Wars. The series becomes stronger as the seasons progress, which is largely due to the maturing of Ahsoka Tano and the series’ filling-in of plot holes from the original prequels. If you read February’s monthly memo, you’ll know that we watched seasons 2 and 3 last month. So, we are making good progress—but also watching literally nothing else, perhaps to our roommates’ disappointment.
📖 I finished reading Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. The novel’s multiple protagonists include a translator, a poet, a publisher, a mother. A translated book about translation? What else could be more up my alley? I also started reading, but did not finish (alas, I had to return it to the library) Sour Heart, a collection of short stories by Jenny Zhang. My favorite book that I read this month was Last Things by Jenny Offill, whose imaginative language and lean prose made from great bedtime reading. I’m currently working my way through Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which feels uncannily relevant to my life right now. Why is it that the books we read always mirror our lives?
“My mother said that one day the pictures wont make any sense anymore … because everything will be inside … and we’ll all live in huge buildings connected to one another by tunnels…. Our skin will be thin as paper from staying inside and we won’t even remember that we once told time by the sun.” – Jenny Offill
“History has failed us, but no matter.” – Min Jin Lee
“How does this thing about remembering the future work? … If you dedicate your life to writing novels, you’re dedicating yourself to folding time.” – Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney
🎵I started “zooming” this month, so”Zing a Little Zong” by Bing Crosby has been stuck in my head (when I sing it aloud, to Kevin’s amusement/frustration, I change the word “Zing” to “Zoom”). “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” by Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington also feels very apropos right now. Additionally, I challenged myself to learn a solo jazz routine to “Melody in Swing” by the Don Byas Quartet, so that’s probably my most-played song of the month.
In 1997, the year that I was born, the H5N1 virus in humans was first reported in Hong Kong. Almost 20 people were infected while 6 died. This would not be the first time the “bird flu” virus descended on Hong Kong.
In order to contain the 1997 outbreak, the government ordered a ban on chicken imports from China and then a mass slaughter of chickens; around 1.3 million birds. According to a CNN article from 1998, “Hong Kong’s chicken killers haunted by guilt,” the slaughtering of chickens was a deeply traumatic event for workers in the Agriculture and Fisheries department. Many of these workers were religious and did not want to kill birds; some could still hear the cries of the murdered birds when they went to bed at night. “Hong Kong Destroys Its Chickens,” a Washington Post article published in December 1997, goes into more detail on the killings:
More than 250,000 chickens were killed with carbon dioxide gas in the first day of an operation that involved thousands of government workers from a half-dozen agencies as well as private vendors, who also slit the throats of the birds and dropped the carcasses into plastic garbage bags. Yellow dump trucks and earth-moving machines made huge piles of poultry remains at three large landfills….. So massive is the job that the government did not have enough salaried workers and ended up hiring day laborers to kill chicken and geese for one Hong Kong dollar — the equivalent of about 12 cents — per slaughtered bird.
Although the public was assured that you could not catch the bird flu by eating chicken, this did not stop restaurants from removing chicken from their menus or the government from ordering the slaughter. My favorite poem by Chung Kwok-keung is 家務 “Housework” (translation forthcoming in Circumference Magazine later this year). The first time I read the poem, I teared up. It tracks the speaker’s relationship with chickens from his childhood to adulthood, as he watches chickens go from being creatures of love and affection to the faces of a fatal virus. I won’t share my full translation here yet (message me if you want it), but here’s the last stanza:
Is that love? I see a thin fluid flow from your beak like tears Is that the flu I see a whole city of people with long faces Between rainy and sunny days, I learn to wear masks and hazmat suits Deeply raking the mud, doing that never-ending work Oh-oh, I hear again that voice that voice stopping and going Mouths sealed in every stuffed black plastic bag Is that love, for the children we removed you from the cookbook Is that love, for our own sake we piled up your bodies Like houses crowded together in the morning at night in a shut-up city I hear that voice that voice is nearby is at my feet Without understanding it that language is buried like the days
I mention the bird flu because it is the first influenza that took place in the timeline of my life so far. Since then, there have also been SARS (2003), H1N1 swine flu (2009), Zika (2015), etc, listed here. And now: COVID-19 (2020).
How do infectious diseases shape cultural and personal memory? I have been thinking about the influence of diseases such as SARS and H5N1 on HK’s history as I translate some of Chung’s poems, a number of which touch on these diseases. I have also been thinking about how I am personally reacting to COVID-19, which is the first serious pandemic that I am experiencing as a functioning adult. Now is certainly the first time I am making decisions surrounding personal health in a place other than HK, in times of a virus. This distancing in some ways makes homesickness all the more acute.
I actually have distinct memories of the SARS era, or so I believe. What I remember is not SARS, however, but a blissfully long chunk of time spent at home; piecing together puzzles on the study room floor; making art with my mom; reading. It’s absurd to think that while this deadly virus was proliferating in Hong Kong, my artistic interests as a child were also proliferating. When I remember SARS, I remember staying at home (school was cancelled) and thriving off tons of playtime. Only years later did I realize that it was a totally different narrative for my parents. For the city.
Trauma, grief, and disease create voids in our life of different magnitudes. 1.3 million chickens eradicated from the face of a city. A misremembering of months spent away from school. Cancelled conferences and international gatherings. A 3,000+ global death toll.
This Thursday, I was supposed to attend AWP, the largest literary conference in North America. On Saturday, the largest physics conference in the world (to draw 11,000) was cancelled 36 hours prior to the event. AWP is supposed to host 12,000 writers. To make matters worse, the CDC released a patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend in San Antonio, and said patient immediately went to the mall, a food court, and a hotel near the airport. Yesterday, the mayor of San Antonio declared a public health emergency. He later claimed he did so purely to seek legal leverage. He would later publish a letter saying that San Antonio is as “wonderful as ever,” encouraging others to visit. The co-executive director of AWP (now former director; she resigned this morning, long story) sent mixed messages about a potential cancellation through her personal Twitter account; writers panicked; misleading information was tweeted; planes and hotels were cancelled; and then came the announcement that the conference is still on.
Rumors, proliferating rapidly alongside the virus, are powerful vehicles for self-fulfilling prophecies. People hear that supermarkets are running out of rice, so they go and buy all the rice; next thing you know, the supermarkets are out of rice. People hear that a conference is cancelled, so they cancel their hotel reservations and registration; next thing you know, the lack of attendees in-effect cancels the event.
Crises always expose flaws that are already inherent in a system, and the institutional issues that have arisen since the COVID-19 outbreak remind us that our world is, at its ugliest, a place where xenophobia can run amuck; where decisions about public health are set aside for profit; where fear can drive irrationality.
Now is the first time I’ve thought about how a pandemic can affect the publishing industry. The London Book Fair will soon experience the same lack-of-attendance woes as AWP is now, for example. Small presses who shelled out to attend the conference will take an economic hit. This is the first time I have seen so clearly a combined crisis of health and governance in the literary world. In his takedown of AWP in the LA Review of Books, former AWP executive director Matt Burriesci wrote: “How can this board restore the organization’s health when they don’t seem to even acknowledge the sickness?”
There is a lot more about the virus that I want and need to think through, but perhaps not on this platform. Years later, when I look back on this time, I wonder what I will remember.
“These kind of soy sauces are passed down for generations. They are heirlooms. If you look into yourself, you see past, present and future. You see that time revolves endlessly. You can see the past from the present. By looking into myself, I see my grandmother, my mother, the elders in the temple, and me. As a result, by making soy sauce, I am reliving the wisdom of my ancestors. I am reliving them. It’s not important who or when. What is important is that I’m doing it in the present. I use soy sauce, and I acknowledge its importance. It is no longer just me that’s doing things. It’s me in the past, in the present, and even in the future. Soy sauce is eternal. It is life itself.”
– Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun from Korea. She said this during an episode of Chef’s Table. It’s not a poem *per se,” but it is the most poetically heard-rending thing I came across this month so I wanted it to serve as the poem of the month.
🖼️ February tends to be a short but crammed month, and this year was no exception! This month, my ALTA mentorship officially kicked off, and I got to meet my mentor Jennifer Feeley in Chicago, which was wonderful. It’s crazy to think that my book project is slowly, yet surely, underway. This month, we celebrated both Kevin’s birthday—I made a Yoda cake using spinach and honey—and valentine’s day (back to back, convenient for me). We felt lucky that the annual UChicago Folk Festival took place over that weekend. We go every year, so neither of us had to brainstorm date ideas (our ideal date night is probably binge-watching Clone Wars at home, so thinking of “real” dates is challenging). But we did end up having a nice dinner at Strings Ramen and then a surprise Saturday night dinner at Giordano’s, where I bit my tongue so hard that I took an entire week to recover and couldn’t speak/eat properly for like 3-4 days. On the subject of my February afflictions…this month, I also had to get my ears cleaned (first time using my medical insurance) after my ear wax accumulation became unbearable (sorry if this is TMI), and for the past 2 weeks my left neck muscle has been kind of sprained (from trying to knock water out of my ear; from doing bad crunches at Cardio HIIT; from waking up the wrong way and yanking it). Anyway…February has also been a busy, busy month at work, as we’re gearing up to go to AWP in San Antonio next week (more on that in March). But I’ve still found time to work on some translations, and co-translated this op-ed for Lausan HK: “I went to eat at three ‘Hongkongers Only’ restaurants.” It’s “a reflective account of what it has been like to be Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong under the dual conditions of epidemic and ongoing political struggle.” I’ve said it before and will say it again; translation is all about having empathy.
🎬 If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I watched Miss Americana and wrote a long, “extra” blog post about it. I actually watched it a second time in a more relaxed setting (just me and Kevin and one other roommate) and that was waaay more fun. February is actually quite a significant Movie Month; the Oscars happened! I am delighted that Parasite took home four major awards: best screenplay, director, foreign film, and PICTURE. Of course, Parasite‘s win also behooves the Academy. It feels like the first time in a while that a Best Picture win has been so widely celebrated. I’ve been reading some more analyses of how the film is a technical masterpiece; e.g. the simple “ram-don” dish is a striking metaphor, lines are employed in the cinematography to represent class divisions, timing is perfect and exacting in the film and screenplay, etc. More on Parasite later. This month, Kevin and I also successfully finished Season 2 of Clone Wars and are now on Season 3. Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time watching these cartoons, but then again I realize how much fun it is to indulge in these concise, tightly-written episodes. Actually, one of the episodes even made me tear up! An episode we watched today (I am composing this sentence on Monday, Feb 24) also made me think a lot about how the accents of voice actors are used to suggest, sometimes problematically, racial differences between different aliens. For example…Cham Syndulla is French? Lott Dod and the other Neimoidians are…East Asian? Of course, given how Neimoidians are depicted as being somewhat slimy and treacherous, you can see how casting them in Asian voices is kinda problematic. I did some digging on the Internet and feel justified by this article from 1999 that confirms some of my thoughts on the matter:
The Phantom Menace is filled with the hierarchies of accent and class status. The Jedi knights speak in full paragraphs, resonant baritones and crisp British accents…. The “status-obsessed,” hive-dwelling Neimoidians, on the other hand–who lead “a labyrinthine organization of bureaucrats and trade officials from many worlds that has insinuated itself throughout the galaxy”–speak like Charlie Chan.
Also, wiki.starwarsminute points out that the stereotyped demographic changes based on which version of the movies you’re watching:
In the English language version, Silas Carson (the actor playing Nute Gunray) imitated a Thai actor’s reading of the lines.
In the German version, they were dubbed with French-sounding accents.
In the French, Spanish, Czech and Italian versions, the Neimoidians were given Russian accents.
Okay, enough on Star Wars (for now). This month, Kevin and I also watched To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (we’d seen the first movie together) and I think the movie may have convinced me that I’m no longer a rom-com gal. The movie was generally fun to watch, although the on-the-nose attempts to emulate Wes Anderson (and Buzzfeed Tasty) were a Bit Much. Kevin was frustrated at how “extra” everyone in the movie was; I felt personally attacked by how Lara Jean wears a perfect outfit (and new shoes) in every scene; we both thought the movie did John Ambrose McClaren dirty! And, like Star Wars (I guess I am bringing it up again), To All the Boys tries to thrust diversity in our faces through its casting while steadily uplifting something else; in the case of the rom-com, it’s what can best be described as a “basic white girl” aesthetic. The movie stars an Asian-American lead, which is great. But when you cast an Asian-American woman in a film that isn’t fundamentally interested in race yet sporadically gestures to it throughout, the screenwriting begins to feel a bit checkbox-y. It’s telling that the press circuit has mostly been interested in the male heartthrobs in the film, too. The audience isn’t actually primed to root for Lara Jean throughout. At times, it feels like she is explicitly directed to get on our nerves. In this way, I think she and Kelly Marie Tran (as Rose Tico) are in the same boat. Maybe. On Feb 28, fueled by sheer curiosity, I sped-watch Love is Blind, the new reality TV sensation taking over Netflix. It’s 10-episode show that begins with a simple, yet dystopian, conceit: if you put 10 women and 10 men in two different rooms, and allow them to have conversations without seeing each other, can they find true love based on *personality* alone? By episode 10, they are supposed to get married. Of course, because it’s reality TV, no one on the show looks “bad” to begin with, so it’s not exactly a princess and the frog situation. The real experiment of the show is not, as they claim, to discover whether love is blind. Instead, it’s a concentrated character-study on the ways in which gender dynamics manifest even in the absence of physical interaction.
📖 This month, I read Severance by Ling Ma, who teaches fiction in the Creative Writing department here at UChicago. Severance is an eerily timely novel about the “Shen Fu Virus” that turns New York city into an apocalyptic city. The fevered zombies repeat mundane actions over and over again until they turn into the walking dead. The novel probes us to consider: does one need to be fevered to be trapped in an infinite, mindless routine?
“Memories beget memories. Shen fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop.”
All zombie narratives are about the disintegration of society in some way (politically, environmentally, socially), and Severance is also a story about immigrating, “severing” from a home country. The parts in the novel that really resonated with me were what the narrator had to say about moving to the US; her mother telling her to moisturize and their realization that milk is sold in the US in gallons.
I’ve also started reading Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, translated by Christina MacSweeney, as well as Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. I also read quite a few poetry books this month; Suzanne Buffam’s The Pillow Book, Ted Kooser’s Kindest Regards, and of course a number of poems by Chung Kwok-keung.
Two articles published online that I loved reading this month are 1) Lok Fung’s piece on the “Ups and Downs of Poetry,” in which she mentions me alongside a number of other women writers as “同類人” (kindred spirit, birds of a feather, etc.): “旅居芝加哥的黃鴻霙從現代性的換喻入手，拆解那些愛情與城市的現象” (something like “Chicago-based May Huang uses the modern literary device of metonymy to unpack images of love and the city”). Lok Fung was one of the poets I wrote about in my thesis and now we are pals! Love to see it.
2) The second article I loved is Sharon Choi’s op-ed for Variety, in which she discusses her experience interpreting for Bong Joon Ho throughout the film awards season. This piece brought tears to my eyes, it’s so beautifully written. And her grit and kindness is so evident throughout all of it. My favorite passage is this one:
Switching back and forth between languages has never been my job; it’s the only way of life I know. I’ve been my own interpreter for 20 years. A psychologist specializing in bilingual children once told me that most people have a similar brain capacity — if a monolingual knows 10,000 words, a bilingual would only know 5,000 in each language. All my life I’ve been frustrated by having to choose one of the two. This is why I fell in love with cinema’s visual language. Filmmaking is a similar process of translating my interior into a language that can communicate with the outside world, but I didn’t have to search for equivalents that were only approximations of the original.
🎵 After my long rant on movies + books, I will spare you with a mercifully short paragraph on my February in Music; the Folk Festival took place this month, and the one band whose sound really stuck with me was Bill and the Belles, an americana band from Johnson City, Tennessee (I really hope y’all read that as a Wagon Wheel lyric). My favorite tune by them is “Lonesome Blues.” There are such clever rhymes in that song, and its percussion presents fun opportunities for dancing. I feel obliged to add that Doja Cat’s “Say So” was also a significant song for me this month because it is the track my Cardio HIIT instructor uses for the weights circuit of the workout. Lollllllll
💬 Finally…my word of the month this February is….SHOES. Because this month, I finally decided to invest in shoes again. Shoes for work; for the snow; for dancing; for general coolness. I have a difficult relationship with buying shoes, and once considered writing a dystopian short story in which the protagonist is trapped in a large, suburban DSW for 24 hours and can only escape if she buys the perfect pair of shoes… but anyway. Shoes enable you to fully become the person you want to be, whether that person is a runner or swing dancer. This is nothing new, of course; just a life lesson I had to remind myself again this month. And shoes also remind me of the timeless saying, “to put yourself in another’s shoes.” I feel like I’ve been doing that a lot this month, not only through my translation work, but also at work; while watching the DemDebates; when thinking about the coronavirus; during phone calls with my family. Onwards to March!
I’ve been sitting on this news for a while, and am happy to finally announce that I’ve been awarded funding through the ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship Program to work on my translations of Chung Kwok-keung’s poetry with Jennifer Feeley! Jennifer is a translator I’ve admired for a long time; her translations of Xi Xi’s poetry was the first instance of Hong Kong poetry in translation that really resonated with me. The six other mentees chosen through the program work with Arabic, Catalan, Korean, Russian, and Norwegian. You can learn more about the other mentees and mentors here, and scroll down (or visit this link) to learn about my project. I hope to use this blog as a space to provide updates on my process; an online translation journal of sorts. 💖
The ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship Program is designed to facilitate and establish a close working relationship between an experienced translator and an emerging translator on a project selected by the emerging translator. The mentorship duration is nine months. The emerging translator is expected to choose a project that can be completed in this timeframe, and they will only be advised on that particular project. Congratulations to this year’s poetry from Hong Kong mentee, May Huang, who will be mentored by Jennifer Feeley:
May Huang is a writer from Hong Kong. Born in Taiwan and based in Chicago, she translates prose and poetry from the Chinese. She graduated from the University of Chicago with honors in English and Comparative Literature last June, and is a member of the Third Coast Translator’s Collective, a community of translators primarily based in the Chicagoland area. She is thrilled to attend ALTA for the second time this November as a mentee of the Emerging Translators Program!
May was introduced to literary translation in 2017, when she enrolled in a prose translation workshop taught by Annie Janusch through her university’s Program in Creative Writing (coincidentally, May now works as the program’s Student Affairs Administrator). Since then, she has been lucky enough to study with Jason Grunebaum, Haun Saussy, Jennifer Scappettone, and Lynn Xu. Her thesis, which was awarded the Janel Mueller Undergraduate Thesis Prize, explores the ways in which poetry and translation shape urban life in Hong Kong and Chicago.
May’s interest in the poetics of place has always been a driving force behind the poems that she reads, writes, and translates. Her poems about Hong Kong have appeared in journals such as Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and The Kindling Journal, and her reviews of Hong Kong poetry have been published in the Hong Kong Review of Books. The first translation she published, titled “Chicago” and published in Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation, came from a suite of city poems by the Taiwanese poet Ya Hsien. May’s translation of the short story “How the Best Masters Died” by Ma Xiaoquan is forthcoming in the Wuxia issue of Pathlight Magazine.
Over the course of the ALTA mentorship program, May intends to translate a book-length manuscript of poems by the Hong Kong poet Chung Kwok-keung (鐘國強). A prolific poet, essayist, critic, and translator, Chung has been writing poetry for over two decades and is the recipient of numerous Hong Kong Biennial Awards for Chinese Literature, among other accolades. His poems navigate the personal and political to portray the city’s different dimensions; through his work, one understands more about what it means to work, eat, live, love, and protest in Hong Kong. For May, translating Hong Kong literature is not only about advocating for the city’s culture, but also about better understanding its past, present, and possibilities. When translating Chung’s work, May feels connected to and endlessly inspired by Hong Kong—a city she is proud to consider home. May’s translations of Chung’s poems have appeared in Exchanges and more recently in Asymptote, in an essay on protest poetry that went viral on Twitter.
May is thrilled to be mentored by Jennifer Feeley, whose translation of Xi Xi’s work was one of the first examples of Hong Kong poetry in translation that she encountered. Now is a crucial time for Hong Kong literature to reach an international audience, and May is grateful to ALTA for supporting Hong Kong voices through its mentorship program.
Like most Swifties with Netflix access, I watched the long-awaited Miss Americana yesterday. Sipping from my Taylor Swift mug, I watched the 1.5 hour doc, directed by Lana Wilson, with my sister (another Taytay fan), my boyfriend (a Swiftie now as well), and a few of my roommates (who mostly watched while multitasking). After the documentary, I’ve been thinking a lot about who watches Miss Americana, and how your position in the Swiftverse influences the ways in which you receive the doc. How does the doc speak to you if you’re already a massive Swiftie who knows a lot about Taylor’s rise to fame and what she’s been through this past decade? If you’re a casual listener of her music and mostly know the hits like “Love Story” and “Shake It Off”? If you’re just watching because you happen to live with someone who really cares about Taylor Swift? If you are politically active—as a conservative? A liberal? A socialist? Although Miss Americana moves chronologically through Taylor’s formative years, the doc ultimately wants to tell us more about what’s next for the star: Miss Americana is the portrait of the artist as a young activist.
The documentary is titled “Miss Americana,” which feels fitting; it is a reference to a track from Lover that borrows a high school setting to make larger claims about national disillusionment and the importance of finding love amidst political chaos. The song is probably one of Taylor’s most close-readable songs; Swifties and non-Swifties alike wonder, who’s Miss Americana? And who is the heartbreak prince? A few weeks ago, Kevin sat me down and we went through the song line-by-line as he asked these very questions.
Well, one thing that we can agree on is that Miss Americana represents Taylor here. “Americana” refers not only to “things associated with the culture and history of America,” but is also a musical umbrella-term that encompasses folk, gospel, bluegrass, country, and other music traditions. To be “Miss Americana,” you have to reflect America-ness in some way. You have to be America’s sweetheart.
But what makes America “Americana” when the country is so divided? In 2016, when presidential election day came round and the country was presented with two options—Hillary Clinton and Trump—whomever you voted for said something about what you believed (or wanted to believe) about America.
Until 2018, Taylor had remained infamously quiet about her politics. So quiet that neo-Nazis decided she was their “Aryan goddess.” It didn’t help that Taylor had released an album called “RED” and turned the color into her aesthetic for a year. Or that she’s a wealthy, white, straight woman who grew up on a Christmas tree farm.
For so much of her life, Taylor was taught that “a nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people; a nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you; a nice girl doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views.” And it is precisely Taylor’s niceness that has made her a role model to so many. Growing up, I remember how Taylor was always presented by the media as the exemplar superstar; the one who is close to her family and takes tons of photos with fans and doesn’t ever stir up drama. This is in sharp contrast with some of her peers; in 2008 and 2007 respectively, Miley Cyrus was criticized for posing nearly topless in Vanity Fair while Vanessa Hudgens was dealing with a nude photo leak. If you were paying attention to teenage pop culture at this time, you’d know that 2007/8 was when Taylor was recording Fearless, which debuted at the end of 2008 and propelled her into worldwide fame. As a young kid, you listen to “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “White Horse,” etc., and decide to let go of your former idols, Hannah Montana and Gabriella Montez. The new nice girl in town is Taylor Swift.
Taylor begins the doc by telling us that all she ever wanted to be was a nice girl. Someone good. She should know that her kindness and empathy is what makes her fans (at least me) love her so much. But, as Taylor admits, her own desire to play the role of good-girl Miss Americana came back to bite her in unexpected ways. One of the pivotal moments in the doc (and in Taylor’s life) is when (trump-supporter) Kanye West and Kim Kardashian turn the world against Taylor by releasing “evidence” that Taylor gave Kanye permission to call her a bitch in his song, “Famous.” These are dark times I remember well. It felt like all of a sudden, people who were just waiting for an opportunity to hate Taylor Swift came out to say, “Aha! I knew it! There’s no way you could possibly be so good and innocent. You’re a snake.” People were fed up with Taylor’s nice-girl image, her popularity, her attractive boyfriends, her inability to mess up. Her blunder with Kanye proved that she was not only a good girl who effed up, but a good girl who was never so good to begin with.
What’s happening here is not just that haters are gonna hate. People turned on Taylor not just because they were mean-spirited or jealous. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this drama ensued in 2016, a time when the “goodness” of America was thrown into question after November. Why did people turn on Taylor Swift? Why didn’t enough people vote for Hillary Clinton? Both are instances that involved a disbelief in the “good” of Americana. Oh, Taylor Swift isn’t who you thought she was? Well, neither is America.
Taylor has said some very enlightening things about why she didn’t endorse Hillary in 2016, notably in an interview with Vogue:
“The summer before that election, all people were saying [about me] was She’s calculated. She’s manipulative. She’s not what she seems. She’s a snake. She’s a liar,” Swift said. “These are the same exact insults people were hurling at Hillary. Would I be an endorsement or would I be a liability? Look, snakes of a feather flock together. Look, the two lying women. The two nasty women.”
What’s unspoken here is that Hillary’s top celebrity-endorser at the time was Katy Perry, with whom Taylor was still infamously beefing with in 2016 (according to the public eye), so Taylor’s involvement in Hillary’s campaign would have caused another host of problems. But Taylor is right; she was unpopular in 2016. And her team wouldn’t want that unpopularity to spread further, particularly not to the election.
In the doc, Taylor tells us that women in the music industry have to constantly reinvent themselves to become “interesting,” or else they become disposable. Indeed, Taylor has been doing this her entire career; going from country sweetheart in Nashville to pop icon in New York. But Miss Americana is about Taylor reinventing herself in a new and more important way; as a politically-vocal artist.
If you want to watch “Miss Americana” to know how “Shake It Off” was made, forget it. As Taylor says in the doc in a tearful scene, it “just feels like it’s more than music now at this point.” One of the best scenes in the doc is her posting her Instagram post about elections, in effect coming out as a democrat (personally, I always knew she was a democrat and I find the Aryan-goddess theories ridiculous):
The scenes where she talks about the lessons she’s had to learn along the way are by far the most impactful moments in the doc. For example, when she says:
“I’m trying to be as educated as possible on how to respect people and deprogram the misogyny in my own brain. There is no such thing as a slut, as a bitch, as someone who’s bossy, there’s just a boss. We don’t wanna be condemned for being multifaceted.”
And my favorite:
“I wanna love glitter, and also stand up for the double standards that exist in our society. I wanna wear pink, and tell you how I feel about politics. I don’t think those things have to cancel each other out.”
You might be asking, is Taylor Swift “woke” now? And you might be saying, “well if so, she’s late to the party.” But, look around you; clearly, the world is not woke (whatever that means). Miss Americana shows one of the planet’s biggest superstars doing what we should all be doing, i.e. continuously educating ourselves, recognizing our own hypocrisy, and speaking up for what we believe in. Taylor laments towards the end of the doc that she feels as if she were frozen at the age she got famous. A number of tough wake-up calls in her life, from the Kanye incident to her sexual assault case in 2017 to her mom’s ongoing battle with cancer, forced her to reassess everything around her. Taylor is famous for writing about heartbreak, but the “heartbreak prince” in her song represents another kind of heartbreak: one that exposes the pain that the country you call home. A recurring claim Taylor makes in the film is that Marsha Blackburn’s values are not the “Tennessee Christian Values” the American people stands for. And yet, Blackburn was still elected as senator. An important message that this film conveys (and I haven’t seen anyone say this yet) is that to many people in Tennessee, clearly, Marsha Blackburn is their Miss Americana. All this goes to show that, despite how clear-cut the doc is about what Taylor believes in, America is still rife with divisions and disillusionment.
I expected that I’d tear up in the doc when Taylor spoke about her political awakening, or about her mom’s cancer. But actually, the moment that truly got me (and I feel so emotional typing this still) is the rare scenes of her with Joe Alwyn:
Miss Americana, both the song and the movie, are about political despair. But they are ALSO about love; “finding happiness without anyone else’s input.” As someone who has Taylor’s entire discography essentially memorized, I know how much Joe (true love) means to her. It’s not only trauma, but also the love in Taylor’s life that has empowered her to find her own voice. And I think that’s beautiful. The doc shows a number of scenes that are obviously filmed by Joe, in effect making him another cinematographer helping to tell her story. The decision to include his gaze (not so much the male gaze but the lover’s gaze) in the film alongside Lana’s shows that we’re seeing Taylor not only through the eyes of “her team,” but also her family. The doc focuses so much on Taylor’s political awakening, but don’t forget that Taylor Swift—before she became Taylor Swift The Activist—was (and is) Taylor Swift the Love Guru. I don’t want her to think that songs such as “Miss Americana,” “YNTCD” and “Only the Young” carry greater gravitas than “Call it What You Want” or “Cornelia Street.” I hope she knows that her voice, no matter what she is using it for, has and will always be of profound importance to those who care about her.
If left to my own devices, I could easily continue to work on this piece until it is book-length but I’m gonna try and wrap it up, lol.
Parts of the doc that I really appreciated, apart from the aforementioned, include: Taylor swearing (we love to see it), Tree Paine being supportive (Tree is Taylor’s publicist and I love her), Taylor eating a burrito and talking about how she had her first burrito in her late 20s (I, too, arrived at burritos late in life), the montage that shows Taylor talking about her conception for the ME! video and the actual filming of it (it was nice to see directorial decisions in the doc), the dinner scene with Abigail (in general, I liked seeing Taylor’s friends make lil cameos in the movie; e.g. Claire Winter and Ashley Avignone), the cat backpack (the funny moments of this doc were peak), her arguments with her dad about politics (heartbreaking tho), her self-deprecating humor (which is well-known among Swifties), the scenes with her mom (love Andrea Swift)…
I didn’t walk away from the doc feeling jubilant, though (as this review might make clear already). In fact, I think the doc actually makes one feel rather sad about the way in which fame and public scrutiny can really affect one’s self-perception and mental health. After I finished watching the documentary I didn’t quite know how to feel for a while. I didn’t reaaaallllyyy like the way in which the documentary was interspliced with “Age 23, ” “Age 25” markers, for instance. If they wanted to divide it up in that way, I would’ve almost preferred they included more information (e.g. “RED era”). Aesthetically, I didn’t really like the white-font-on-black-background look.
Similarly, I thought the doc included way too much footage from reporters. Like, waaaayyy tooo much (loads of which I’d already seen before, but then again, I arrive at this doc with 12 years of experience). The fact that this footage predominantly appeared in the first half made me think that maybe it was a directorial/artistic decision to show us how everything we know about Taylor comes from public judgment. But I felt that an over-reliance on media to tell Taylor’s story actually does her a great disservice. The whole doc is about how she wants to shape her own narrative and tell us her own truth. So why is SO much of the film filled with other people telling us about her? Esp. people from the past? I almost wish that we saw her family/friends tell us about her instead; I would’ve wanted to see original content, not rehashing of old footage. I guess a big reason for this is that the doc primarily wants to tell you about Taylor’s political present/future, not necessarily what she was like as a kid (they’re saving that angle for the next doc in like 15 years, I think). But, it was a bit unnerving to see the first ~6 years of Taylor’s career practically narrated to us by reporters/journalists, whereas Taylor has always told us about her life through music. In some ways, music wasn’t really the focus-focus of the doc, even though we certainly see and hear a lot of it. Did we really need to see that much Marsha Blackburn (I guess yes, if you buy my earlier argument about the 2 Miss Americanas)? In some ways, Miss Americana felt a bit like a collage. As I mentioned earlier, I liked moments in the doc where you could see the director making her own editing choices (e.g. the montage). But the viewing experience is drastically altered when many of the clips comprise of news recordings, many of which take place in the past. Tellingly, two reporters who are featured criticizing Taylor have since come out to apologize for their words (as well as express surprise at their cameos in the film). I kinda wonder how many people they had to get “permission” from to use footage. But I guess it’s as Taylor said; it’s about more than just the music now.
All in all, I love Taylor. I love how much the documentary allows us to see what’s important to her, and also what’s important to America. I’m happy for Taylor, and feel extremely lucky to be alive at the same time as her. Here’s to seeing what Miss Americana does next!