May’s Monthly Memo | May

The Trees

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.

Jericho Brown

🖼️ 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~

May’s Monthly Memo | April

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: