Hello! After wiping away my tears I am now ready to write this little love letter to Fearless (Taylor’s Version).
It is a pretty great time to be a Taylor Swift stan—she released 2 albums and 2 films in 2020, is finally back on Twitter again, has shook off many of the haters, and today, on the first Friday of the year with a date that adds up to 13 (4 + 9), the much-anticipated Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is out!!!
Fearless is the one album whose songs are practically etched into my DNA; I’ve been listening to Fearless almost nonstop since it came out in 2008, when I was 11 years old in Hong Kong and single as a pringle. Today, in 2021, Fearless is still my favorite album of all time, though I’m now married and live in California. How things have changed! But how things have also stayed the same.
The best thing about Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is that it’s *the same,* and also ~new~—we get the same beloved tunes, but with a voice that has matured and glowed up since 2008. You can tell on certain songs (e.g. You Belong With Me) that Taylor just doesn’t get breathless anymore when she hits the high notes. You can especially tell how much she’s grown musically, as an artist, when listening to the “From the Vault” songs, which have Fearless-era lyrics and melodies but are produced in folklore/evermore-era fashion (Jack Antonoff’s thumbprint is particularly visible on “Don’t You”). While Taylor has more or less replicated her 2008 tone, it’s cool to notice the minuscule differences that crop up any during the re-recordings: the drums at the beginning of “The Other Side of the Door,” the guitar notes at the start of “The Best Day,” the short, perfect laugh in “Hey Stephen” (2:55), the “but” that’s in the new “Fifteen” at 3:58 (this change is particularly great because she does add the “but” when performing “Fifteen” live), etc. (I could go on).
Listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) today doesn’t just feel nostalgic—it feels triumphant. Taylor owns every song on this album (take that, Sc**ter Br**n) and a new generation of Swifties have the chance now to enjoy an album release that was iconic then and continues to be iconic now. Most of all, listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) feels warm and fuzzy because 2021 Taylor has found the “Romeo” she sings about in “Love Story.” A few songs on Fearless areabout a particular Joe (Jonas) who broke her heart (including the new bop “Mr. Perfectly Fine”) BUT, funnily enough, Taylor is now with a Joe (Alwyn) who actually treats her well (on “White Horse,” she sings, “I’m gonna find someone someday who might, actually treat me well”). She knew at fifteen that she’d do “greater things than dating the boy on the football team,” and she indeed has. The song “Change,” about revolution and overcoming the odds, has actually never felt more timely, especially given that the very reason Fearless (Taylor’s Version) came to be is Taylor’s ongoing fight to reclaim ownership of her music. Listening to 2021 Taylor sing lyrics from 2008, one gets the feeling that Taylor has manifested her destiny—and that’s why the arc of these songs is so powerful today, 13 years after their debut.
Fearless has been by my side for every important life event, every sad and happy moment. I’m glad that I get to carry Fearless (Taylor’s Version) forward with me now, going through life the way Taylor taught me—headfirst, fearless. *cries in country*
I am back with another edition of “What I Googled Wednesday” (yesterday)! A pithy window into my life via my Internet history.
I woke up earlier than usual yesterday and decided to start the day off by fixing a corner of a crossword-in-progress. The word that ended up working best for the grid is CURASSOW, which I learned is a *stunning* tropical bird that looks like a cross between a turkey and, uh, a spartan? Apparently, there are a few in the Oakland Zoo, so perhaps a field trip is in order.
I haven’t made sushi/gimbap in a while, but I finally restocked on seaweed so made some rolls for lunch. I’ve finally got my ingredient ratios down (e.g. cups of rice = 5 rolls of sushi) but am still trying to perfect my rolling technique. Yellow pickled radish is really the star of these sushi rolls (which also contain Gardein meat, carrots, avocado, cucumber, egg), and I’ve had some sitting in the fridge for a while. Sources say they keep for 1-3 months.
I’ve developed a weekly ritual of singing along to my favorite Jay Chou songs while/after washing the dishes, and it’s so much fun. Therapy isn’t free, but singing Jay Chou’s deep cuts is. I sometimes feel that I sing better in Chinese than in English. I wonder if that’s a mother tongue thing? 說好不哭 (Don’t Cry) is such a simple song (same verse and chorus, repeated twice, basically), but it’s such a banger.
I’m translating a short story that has parts in it about mixing fertilizer and I had to Google “atomizer mister spray plant” to figure out what a “spray tank” is. It’s often hard to find the most basic name for technical equipment because most Google searches will lead to Amazon, and Amazon usually packs as many technical terms as it can into one line. For example, “Hand held Garden Sprayer Pump Pressure Water Sprayers.” So… is it a “garden sprayer”? “Pump pressure”? “Water Sprayer”?
Kevin and I decided to rewatch the Harry Potter movies (they’re available on Peacock, with infrequent ads) and it’s such a nostalgic experience. We also realize that there’s so many things we’ve forgotten about the books/movies—for example, what is Dumbledore’s “light thing” called? (Deluminator). Watching the first movie as adults, we also keep saying—wow, Harry/Ron/Hermione are so CUTE! I guess when we were younger we didn’t think of them as being “cute.” Now that we’re no longer kids, though, their cuteness is jumping out. We are planning to watch all 8 movies, although did you know the Sorcerer’s Stone is 2h39 mins long?! How on earth did I sit through that as a kid?
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition; In part because I’m translating a book about the effacement of old religions and the ushering in of new faiths… but also because it’s the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Ox to be exact, and that’s my Zodiac.
Some might assume that it’s propitious to be in the same year as one’s birth sign but one’s 本命年 (běn mìng nián) is actually considered inauspicious.
“2021 will be a turbulent year for the Ox,” says chinesenewyear.net (lol). “You may encounter unexpected challenges, especially in your career and studies, which can leave you feeling stressed out, distracted, and emotional.”
If it weren’t for the fact that we’re in a pandemic and I don’t have a full-time job yet, I probably wouldn’t feel on edge, but the combination of my 本命年 and this Terrible Time that we’re living in makes me a bit nervous. Yesterday, I began to wonder: did I take the right precautions? Am I doing an adequate job celebrating the new year? How come I barely own any red clothing?
Earlier this year, my mom visited a temple in Taiwan to 安太歲 (ān tài suì) on behalf of me and my brother, the two oxen in the family. Praying to “Tai Sui,” sometimes translated as “Grand Commander of the Year,” can be a way to fend off calamity during one’s 本命年, since 太歲 wields the power to create obstacles for you throughout the year. Although I’ve never paid much attention to astrology, the knowledge that Tai Sui may go easy on me does bring some comfort.
Do all children grow up “less” religious than their parents? I subscribe to some, but not all, of the traditions I grew up with, and my mom in turn believes in some, but not all, of her mother’s beliefs. I don’t stick my chopsticks into a bowl of rice and avoid clipping my fingernails at night. But I also don’t visit temples or pray regularly to any gods. Will I visit a temple to appease Tai Sui during the year of my future children’s Zodiac? Will I buy them red underwear to wear for good luck? What is the half-life of faith?
Although old customs and folklore are slowly eroding, it’s not as if our society has become less devout, per se—it’s just that faith is often placed elsewhere these days. Instead of going to a temple to pray for good fortune, one might post a “summoning circle” on Twitter instead:
Instead of keeping the shrine of a deity at home, millennials might opt for a few celebrity prayer candles:
It’s worth noting that the word “idol” can both mean “a representation of a god used as an object of worship” or a celebrity we admire. K-pop stars are called “idols” and are worshipped as such. Swifties are obsessed with numerology because Taylor times all her music releases around the number 13 (she announced her “Love Story” re-recording on 2/11 (2+11 = 13) and the new Fearless is arriving on 4/9 (4+9 = 13)). Is stan culture so different from organized religion?
Every generation has its new rituals and new gods. Some people say a prayer first thing in the morning, others check their phone.
Of course, this is not to say that religion in the “traditional sense” isn’t still of vital importance in 2021. Because of religion, deadly wars are being waged in parts of the world. Because of religion, a large number of Americans believe that abortion is immoral. But because of religion, there is also joy, unity, and love.
One of the most stirring scenes in Fleabag, a show that in some ways explores the place of “faith” in contemporary culture, is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s confessional monologue in Season 2. She says to the (hot) priest:
“I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.
I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong — and I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives, because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do and what they’ll get out at the end of it, and even though I don’t believe your bullshit, and I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I still scared? So just tell me what to do. Just fucking tell me what to do, Father.”
It’s an extraordinary scene because it puts our timeless need into words—our need for affirmation, security, and direction. No matter what time period we’re in, and no matter what gods we pray to, we all want something to believe in at the end of the day.
So, in the Year of the Ox, I will try to wear red from time to time. I’ll pay attention to my health. I’ll draw on oxen traits—diligence and perseverance—to make it through an uncertain year. And in the worst of times, I’ll encourage myself to believe—to have faith.
I’ve been mulling over this idea for quite some time, ever since I translated a sestina by Chung Kwok-keung back in 2018. In 2019, I translated another—”Fish Tree.” Last year, I translated the final one, “Gecko,” which I presented at the ALTA conference. After ALTA, I started writing this piece, reading more sestinas, and delving into the literary theory on the form. Now, this essay is out in the world!
It’s been heartening to see folks share and resonate with the piece on social media. LitHub even gave me a shout-out in today’s LitHub Daily, which kinda feels like a mile stone!
Here is one of my favorite pull quotes from the piece—
If the sestina is a form that adds depth to words through iteration and replication, does it not also engage in a form of translation? When translating a sestina, translators keenly experience the tensions and reverberations at the heart of literary translation.
After translating Chung’s poems, I now wonder: what’s next for the sestina? Translating Chinese sestinas allowed me to see the possibilities that the form has outside of Western literature
(I’m going to make it a personal goal of mine to alliterate all of my blog titles in 2021)
For the past month, I’ve been translating a story that is about, among other things, fish. Fish feature prominently in the story, as do fish tanks, which are described in vivid detail. In the story, there’s a scene where the protagonist goes on walk, looking for fish tanks that others have discarded and are giving away for free. She plans to use these tanks to store specimen of dead fish, which must be preserved in formalin and ethanol.
Going on a walk/jog and looking for objects (books, bowls, etc.) that people no longer want is an accidental hobby of mine. I’m a slow runner and the idea that my run could double as a treasure hunt certainly makes the journey more appealing. Over the past few months I’ve seen plenty of unwanted things on sidewalks: plush toys, college diplomas, old clothes, glass bottles. But it was today, while I was thinking about the author and her writing, that I happened to come across—you guessed it—a fish tank.
I suppose this is a “coincidence.” But as a writer, I seldom believe in coincidences. If something appears more than once in a text, it becomes a motif. If a character has a dream that then replays in reality, the dream is a prophesy (both these things happen in the story I’m translating). So when a scene I translate happens to me in “real life,” I also want to imagine that it’s an omen, a sign from above, perhaps the universe’s way of affirming that my work as a translator matters somehow.
But it’s not just in my translation or on my jog that I’ve found fish tanks. This morning, I was re-watching the marvelous dinner scene from Fleabag (Season 2, episode 1), during which one of the characters describes a miscarriage as “a ‘goldfish out of the bowl’ sort of thing” (he later gets punched in the face). For the past couple months, I’ve been revising a fish-themed crossword puzzle, and am now on my fourth attempt to build a strong grid. Isn’t the grid that contains my theme words also a kind of tank? As I create new grids but keep my theme words more or less the same, I feel as if I’m changing the water of a fish tank so that the fish inside can continue to live.
I bought a bag of fortune cookies last week, and Kevin and I have been eating one each day. I have always been obsessed with fortune cookies; the idea of finding meaningful words inside something sweet seems very poetic to me, probably because a lot of good poems are often the exact reverse: a sweet feeling hidden inside meaningful words. Each time I read my fortune, I spend the next day or so wondering whether that fortune has already “come true,” or what it may suggest about my life.
The idea of having a “fortune” is particularly appealing during times of uncertainty about what the future holds. Most people are stuck at home right now, perhaps like fish inside their tanks. But at the end of the day, the most important thing isn’t whether the words inside a cookie bear truth, or whether a fictional moment also has real-life relevance. What’s more important to me is the belief I attach to these “fortunes.” Simply believing in the serendipitous, which is in a way the same as being hopeful, may be the most fortuitous takeaway about my fish tank encounter.
Hello, friends! Annie Dillard famously said that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I think how we spend our time on the Internet, for now at least, is also how we spend our lives. So I want to start doing this thing where I pick 5 things I googled on Wednesday (why Wednesday? I dunno) and write a few lines about why I Googled that thing and why it’s relevant to my life right now. I don’t know how often I’ll do this—I’m not trying to revive May’s Monthly Memo, lol—but routines and structure have always helped me get over writer’s block, so maybe this will be fun. Albert and Sam, if you’re reading this (which I know you are)—thanks for encouraging me to get this off the ground!
I’ve been translating a short story from Taiwan lately and one of the terms I had to figure out how to translate was 擲筊 (the URL in the picture above represents the Chinese Wikipedia page for 擲筊). 擲筊 (jiaobei), sometimes translated as “poe divination,” is pretty common in Taiwan. It’s basically a way for us mere mortals to communicate with the gods, and you do so by casting a pair of moon blocks. Depending on how they land, the god’s answer to your question—which can be utterly mundane or very serious—will either be yes, no, “haha,” or “ask me again.”
No one has ever tried to reach me as persistently as the guy who wants to sell me insurance/auto warranty. It reached the point where I started getting calls literally every single day, despite me blocking the number each time (also, like a fool, I always pick up). Finally, I decided to be more proactive about the whole situation and entered my number into the “National Do Not Call Registry.” I am pleased to report that nobody called me today.
Dinner last night was sweet and sour pork! I looked up a recipe but ended up just going with what I remember worked in the past—1/3 cup ketchup + 1/3 cup vinegar + 1/3 ish of pineapple juice from the can will give you a pretty tasty sauce. Thicken it at the end with corn starch, and *chef’s kiss.* Yesterday, Kevin and I had meat for both lunch AND dinner, which is a rarity—we’ve been trying to drastically reduce our meat intake ever since we watched Netflix’s Game Changers.
One of my favorite times of the day is 7 PM, when my phone screen lights up to tell me that the next day’s NYT crossword is available to play. Unfortunately, I’m still not awesome at the puzzle, so often have to turn to Google to solve a tricky clue. What crystal jellies do when disturbed (4)—the answer is GLOW, and honestly, I feel like I should’ve known that. A crystal jelly is basically a jellyfish.
Finally, at 9:54 PM, I checked to see whether Twitter was down and it turned out that our Wifi was just being wonky. It’s been raining hard lately and I think there’s a direct correlation between a downpour and the Wi-Fi being “down” (haha). I really shouldn’t be on the bird app at 10 PM, anyway! So I abandoned my laptop and read a book instead.
One of my writing goals for 2021 is to keep every blog post under 700 words. Looks like I did it for this one! Until the next “What Did I Google Wednesday”…
Wowowow. The devil works hard but Taylor Alison Swift works harder. I cannot believe that in the span of a single year we’ve gotten a documentary, two Disney+ specials, and TWO albums! Freed from the administrative and creative requirements of planning a world tour, and freed from the clutches of Big Machine Records, Taylor has more bandwidth to create than ever before and I just feel lucky to watch her take her artistry to new heights. So here are a fraction of my thoughts; I managed to keep everything under 2,000 words…
Taylor’s ninth studio album evermore is the “sister record” of folklore, in that it picks up where the latter left off—literally, the “willow” music video begins with the “cardigan” video’s ending scene. Like folklore, evermore is co-written mainly with The National’s Aaron Dessner and continues to extend the cottagecore aesthetic of folklore. The woodland backdrop that has characterized most of the album’s artwork finds its musical counterparts in “willow” and “ivy,” the two flora, folksy songs of the album. I love the vocal runs in both songs (the way Taylor sings “follow/hollow” in “willow,” and “goddamn” in “ivy”). The strumming patterns seem like a nod to the Civil Wars, with whom Taylor wrote “Safe and Sound.” In some ways, “willow” and “ivy” are quite different songs: the former is our adventurous and meandering lead single, while the latter is an understated track, placed much later on in the record. But both songs are set in the metaphorical woods and use natural motifs to describe the gravitational pull of a loved one—“Life was a willow, and it bent right to your wind” / “I can’t stop you putting roots in my dreamland.” Taylor has described going into nature as a form of escape, and it feels appropriate that the escapism offered by love is symbolized by nature as well in both songs.
A recurring scene in Taylor’s musical tapestry is the image of splendor tainted by scandal; of glamor dashed with gloom; of beauty marked by bruises. In “Bad Blood,” she asks, “did you have to ruin what was shiny? Now it’s all rusted.” In “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” a glittering “champagne sea” is emptied out because of a backstabbing friend. In “the last great American dynasty,” oil heiress Rebekah Harness parties with Dali and fills “the pool with champagne” but also spends recklessly and earns a reputation as a mad, shameless woman. And true to form, we see fancy fraught by fatality in evermore’s “champagne problems,” a tender track about a woman who shocks everyone by turning down her fiance’s proposal. “Your sister splashed out on the bottle / Now no one’s celebrating;” “Dom Perignon, you brought it / No crowd of friends applauded;” you’ve got to admire the lyrical turn from celebratory to tragic, which is as swift as a brushstroke.
Likewise, in “tolerate it,” a well-wrought scene is soaked in heartbreak. The song paints a portrait of picture-perfect domestic life (“use my best colors for your portrait / lay the table with the fancy shit;” “I polish plates until they / gleam and glisten”) and wallows in the sadness of watching these gestures go unnoticed, merely “tolerated” by an unfeeling partner. It reminds me of those Dutch still life paintings in which everything looks pristine, and yet something feels amiss or grotesque. The heartbreak in the song cuts even deeper when you realize that it’s a response to the nostalgic “invisible string” from folklore—we go from “something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire” to “where’s that man who’d throw blankets over my barbed wire.” And “tolerate it” has one of the best lyrics on the record: “Now I’m begging for footnotes in the story of your life” (I gasped!!). It’s worth pointing out that “tolerate it” is track 5, meaning that it’s the song Taylor considers to be the most emotional on the album.
While evermore doesn’t have the intricate storyline we followed in folklore (James-Betty-August love triangle), it does introduce a new character: Dorothea, who Taylor describes as a “girl who left her small town to chase down Hollywood dreams.” The song “dorothea” is sung from the perspective of someone from her hometown who knew her before she became famous; “You got shiny friends since you left town / A tiny screen’s the only place I see you now.” The song seems like a direct nod to the Lumineers’ “Ophelia” and “Angela,” two songs that are also named after women whose names end with “a” (lol) and paint a vivid vignette around a character. And “’tis the damn season” is from Dorothea’s perspective as she returns home for the holidays and seeks out the “only soul / Who can tell which smiles I’m fakin’” (faking smiles is a recurring line in Taylor’s songs, too, and often describes how she feels about life under the limelight). I particularly like that “‘tis the damn season” is Taylor’s first moody Christmas song (or second, if you count “Back to December”), which I vastly prefer to last year’s jingly “Christmas Tree Farm.” Taylor has said that evermore represents fall and winter (whereas folklore was spring and summer) and no track feels more wintery than “evermore,” the album’s titular and final track. Even Taylor’s voice sounds like the crisp winter air on this track; “Hey December / Guess I’m feeling unmoored / Can’t remember / What I used to fight for.” The piano in the song is played by Joe Alwyn, who is shockingly about to become my favorite collaborator of Taylor’s. And the song transforms magically when Bon Iver enters the song—it feels like we’re suddenly thrown into his song “Holocene,” which was the song I listened to every Christmas back in high school. While this collaboration isn’t quite as stirring as “exile” from folklore, it screams “indie winter” nonetheless.
But when it comes to the album’s features, my favorite is indubitably “no body, no crime,” featuring HAIM. It’s a revenge-themed country track in the lineage of the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and, of course, Taylor’s “Picture to Burn.” Taylor wrote the song herself after listening to crime podcasts and decided to use Este’s name in the song—hence leading to HAIM’s involvement. As a die-hard HAIM and Taylor fan, I’m obviously ecstatic. I have been waiting for this moment for five years. But I’m also somewhat disappointed—I wish HAIM had more of a presence in the song, and the fact that they only sing backing vocals (by “they” I mean only Danielle and Este, no Alana) is symptomatic of a bone I have to pick with Taylor: she rarely collaborates with women, and when she does, they only sing background vocals (e.g. Colbie Caillat, the Dixie Chicks). On the other hand, Ed Sheeran, Future, Bon Iver, Gary Lightbody, etc. get full verses and writing credits. So, I really can’t help but feel a little sad about the under-utilization of HAIM. But otherwise, “no body, no crime” is deliciously dramatic and the lyrics truly, truly slap.
Speaking of country, lyrics, and backing vocals, “cowboy like me” is the other country song on the record, and it’s just gorgeous! It has some of the best lyrics, too: I’m obsessed with how Taylor sings the word “perched” in the chorus. Taylor references Gatsby (one day I might write a longer piece on this) and romantic poetry so many times in her recent work, but from a literary standpoint, I feel like the unadorned prose of “cowboy like me” is where it’s at. Compare these lines from folklore’s bonus track “the lakes” — “I want auroras and sad prose / I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet”—to this scene from “cowboy”—”never wanted love / Just a fancy car / Now I’m waiting by the phone / Like I’m sitting in an airport bar.” The former is flowery and evocative, but the latter simply just pulls you right into the scene. To me, “cowboy like me” is one of the most moving songs on the album.
There are songs on evermore that almost sound as if they could be a pop song. “Gold Rush,” a Jack Antonoff collab, has the soaring, shimmering quality of many songs on Lover. Lyrically, it’s denser, and makes you nod your head throughout. It also has the best rhymes on the album—”gold rush / red flush / quick brush / rose blush / bone crush.” Taylor is a real poet, you guys. Like “gold rush,” “long story short” also has a pop vibe, and reminds me of “I forgot that you existed” in that the song has big “shrug” energy. “I forgot that you existed / And I thought that it would kill me, but it didn’t” sounds very nonchalant, as does “Long story short, it was a bad time.” “Closure,” the penultimate track with a crackling percussion undertone, is defiant in this way too; the song’s speaker rejects closure. By doing so, these songs also refuse to enter full “pop” mode—they present no freewheeling bridge or climax. And without the glam and glitz of pop production, Taylor’s voice can shine more as its own instrument. I honestly think she’s never sounded better.
And yet the absence of Taylor’s trademark hooks, and the concentration of the unhurried, undeviating melodies for which The National is known, results in songs that can come across as repetitive and even monotonous. “Happiness” is a lyrically thoughtful track, scattered with allusions to The Great Gatsby. But the song is 5:15 minutes long (Taylor wrote it just last week) and doesn’t hold much structure. “Marjorie,” a song about Taylor’s grandmother, is moving and haunting (it even incorporates some of Marjorie’s vocals), but lyrically falls flat compared to the other songs on the album. And “coney island,” which features Matt Berninger of The National, sounds more like a National song than a Taylor song. I can’t quite explain it, but the way “merry go” stacks on top of “sorry for not making you my centerfold” (which is still lyrically beautiful, by the way) is very The National-esque. All this is to say, I think Taylor’s collaboration with the men of alt-rock and indie-folk has been wonderfully productive, but—I’d like to see more of her, and a wee bit less of The National, in her music.
The stories that Taylor tell on evermore flourish in the contrasting themes of return and departure; prolonging and resolution. The idiom “open-and-shut” that appears in “willow” thus serves as a perfect metaphor for the entire album. “Open” and “shut” are antonyms, but when put together, they describe a case that is indisputable. What’s indisputable on evermore is that Taylor not only creates memorable and evocative characters but is one herself; no matter what genre she steps into or which collaborators she invites into her world, her poetic and musical presence polishes and defines whatever she touches. She can transport us into any time or place—be it the Methodist church in “’tis the damn season” or the airport bar in “cowboy like me.” The leaves on the trees and the winter air feel different when I walk down the street listening to evermore. I’m drawn into the drama of a murder mystery, or a lover’s jealousy, or the thrill of an imagery former flame. I’m so grateful to be closing out the year with new music from Tay, who as always helps me get through so much. I know I’ll be listening to her music for “evermore.” 😭💖
I’ve always prided myself on my good memory. When watching a movie, I can usually identify what other roles the actors in that film have played. To Kevin’s annoyance, I sometimes bring up details about our first year of dating that he can’t remember. I also have a knack for remembering song lyrics (and not just those written by Taylor Swift). Which was why I was so surprised to discover this morning that a book I had just finished—William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow—was actually a book I had already read 7 years ago, in 2013.
Let’s rewind for a minute. I found a copy of Maxwell’s book in a Little Free Library near our apartment last month while jogging around the neighborhood. I go on a short run every day, mostly to get out of the house, and always make a point to stop by the many Little Free Libraries stationed in the area. From the outside, Little Free Libraries share similar qualities; they are often made of wood and shaped like a small house. The books inside are typically protected by a glass window that one can peer through to scope out what’s inside. I know of almost ten Little Free Libraries near me, and they’ve each taken on a distinct personality based not on how they look, but what books they hold. One library tends to contain books about food and, more recently kink. Another mostly has children’s picture books, such as Captain Underpants. A few of them often feature old paperbacks, from a beat-up edition of The Lord of the Rings to a copy of José Saramago’s Blindness. I almost never take a book from the libraries, and mostly just enjoy peering inside (I have a “window shopping” habit). But when I came across the quaint little house with William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow in it—I felt a spark light up in my brain.
My immediate memory of the book was that it was something I had once wanted to read, put some effort into finding, and never got around to reading. Or perhaps it was a book I had read, but not finished? Either way, the book sat in my mind like an unfinished task. So, I brought it home.
Over the course of reading the book, it became clear to me (or so I thought) that I had indeed never read it. This was, as far as I was concerned, my first time reading it. Occasionally I would come across sentences that seemed familiar, but I would attribute those rare flashes of recognition to quotes I had seen in passing on the Internet. When I closed the book this morning, I thought to myself—well, I’ve finally finished it.
Still holding the book in my hands, I suddenly had the idea that I should update my Goodreads account, which I used to update religiously but haven’t touched in ages. I might as well start by adding So Long, See You Tomorrow to my list of 2020 reads, I thought. Perhaps the fact that Goodreads even crossed my mind should have been a sign that somewhere deep in my unconscious, a string of my memory had been plucked. But either way, I looked up the book on Goodreads and saw—with a shock—that I had already read the book. In 2013. Not only had I read it, I had even written a little review:
I had described the book as a “hazy half-recollection,” a line taken from the fourth chapter of the novel, and my memory of the book can ironically be described as such. As I read my review of the book, I was confused by the line about the MOMA painting, which (having just finished the book) I couldn’t recall. Did I read the same book? I wondered aloud, while Kevin chucked beside me. I flipped through the first few chapters of the book again and realized that, yes, I do remember reading the part about The Palace at 4 a.m. But it’s a sculpture, not a painting. And for some reason, I had found it a more important detail back in 2013 than I do now.
On August 4, 2013, I had noted on Goodreads: “the public library near where I live nearly lost this book, but I’ve finally found it.” Slowly, I began to remember. In my teenage years I went through a phase where I was determined to read books that were “contemporary classics,” books outside the syllabus that would help me become “well-read.” I remember pinpointing So Long, See You Tomorrow as one of those books. I also remember trying to find it at the Hong Kong Central Library, one of my favorite places in the world. I no longer know what I meant by saying that the library “nearly lost this book,” but one way or another I found it. Clearly, I also read it, and wrote a short review (as I did with every books I read those days) on my blog at the time, which is too embarrassing to hyperlink here, but here’s a screenshot of part of the review:
Most of the review is identical with the Goodreads review, save for a number of quotes at the end as well as the first sentence: “I put a colossal amount of effort into hunting down this book, and it was worth the effort.” I could not have arrived at the same book, 7 years down the line, under more different circumstances.
If 16-year-old May had only known that at age 23, she’d find this elusive book by accident, without even trying to look for it, maybe she wouldn’t have searched so hard back then. And if 23-year-old May had not once read the book, and therefore not realized on a sunny December morning in 2020 that the book she just finished had once crossed her path, she wouldn’t be writing this blog post thinking about the unreliability of memory.
But in a way, this is what So Long, See You Tomorrow is all about.
“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”
The novel is told from the perspective of a grown man who cannot move on from the guilt he feels towards a specific moment in his childhood: his missed opportunity to extend a sign of compassion to his childhood friend Cletus Smith, whose father Clarence just killed the man with whom his wife was having an affair.
The narrator’s guilt seems small compared to the guilt that you’d expect Cletus’s mother Fern and her lover Lloyd Wilson (who used to be Clarence’s best friend) to feel. Fern cheated on her husband and then initiated ugly divorce proceedings that ruined Clarence’s life; Lloyd betrayed his best friend. It’s clear that these characters pay for their actions. But most of the novel depends on the narrator’s guilt, as well as the narrator’s imagined telling of the events leading up to Lloyd’ murder.
Reading my review from 2013, I realize that I now have a different reading of the book. Back then, I had placed Cletus at its center. But now, I see that our narrator’s imagination forms the scaffolding on which the entire story rests. By imagining what happened to Cletus, by going so far as to invent a fictional dog for him, the narrator uses storytelling as a form of absolution—for both himself and young Cletus. The narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow wants to absolve himself a guilt he rationally knows he should not hold on to, and to absolve Cletus of a shame that should not have been his to bear. Although the novel is told from the perspective of an adult and revolves around the consequences of grown-up decisions (adultery, marriage, murder), it is Maxwell’s exposition of childhood and sympathy towards children that pull the book together.
In 2013, I described the narrator’s description of the whole affair as a “recollection,” but the more accurate word I would use now is “imagination.” The narrator doesn’t “remember” what happened to Cletus; he reads some newspapers from 1921 and then proceeds to invent the rest. In the 7 years that have passed since 2013, I have grown more suspicious of “unreliable narrators” and perhaps become one myself. I’d also like to think I’m a more careful reader, although I know I’m still not careful enough. Like Maxwell’s narrator who compares his childhood guilt to his feelings as an adult, I now compare how I received the book then and how I read it now to arrive at some understanding of what it means to grow up, experience loss, and crave understanding.
In 2013, I had identified one of the novel’s later passages as its “best chunk.” It’s the moment after Cletus has to leave his childhood home (and his father) to start a new life. A series of losses, things being “taken away,” mark his transition from childhood into adulthood. Yet I also think of this as the scene where our narrator starts to undo his imagining by removing the elements that populated his storytelling. The fictional dog goes away, as do the everyday objects that populated the narrative: the sound of crows, a pitcher, the smell of hay. Without these elements, does the narrator still have a story to tell?
In 2020, the passage from the book that I may consider the “best chunk” can be interpreted as the opposite of the section above. This passage, which appears early on in the book, actually describes the narrator’s own childhood—before he begins to tell the story of Cletus’s. In the passage, he describes how everyday objects allowed him to cope with the grief of losing his mother. Commonplace objects, from the two big elm trees to the trumpet vine by the back door, help him go from one day to the next.
Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar—an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray backed with brightly colored cigar bands, the fire tongs, anything. With the help of these and other commonplace objects—with the help also of the two big elm trees that shaded the house from the heat of the sun, and the trumpet vine by the back door, and the white lilac bush by the dining-room window, and the comfortable wicker porch furniture and the porch swing that contributed its creak…creak…to the sounds of the summer night—I got from one day to the next.”
Whereas Cletus’s childhood is marked by the disappearance of familiar objects, our narrator is comforted by the reappearance of commonplace things, and I think this is the crucial difference between both boys. Throughout the novel, the narrator continues to make things appear, i.e. tell his own story of what happened to Cletus, because this is the form of comfort and support he understands. And although he is guilted by his failure to reach out to Cletus back then, through storytelling he tries to give Cletus everything (including a dog)—although it all has to end, inevitably, in disappearance.
Memory is a flawed instrument, and also our most precious tool for holding on to people and places long gone. But one who seeks the truth cannot always depend on memory. Unless we have documents from the past to corroborate or correct our beliefs (be it a 2013 Goodreads review or a newspaper from 1921), what really happened or what we wished had happened may only transpire through the stories we tell ourselves. I’m glad I read So Long See You Tomorrow for a second time, even though it felt like the first time. Perhaps 7 years later, I’ll revisit the book (and this blog post, and the one before it) again, my memory of it all no doubt shaped by “a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”
One starless night, I was stranded. Needless to say, foreigners are often stranded. I decided to translate the stories of eight girls who survived the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre, which took place in Gyeongsangnam-do, a southern province of South Korea, in 1951. My decision to translate the girls’ stories wasn’t entirely mine alone. It can take billions of years for light to reach us through the galaxies, which is to say, History is ever arriving. So it’s most likely that the decision, seemingly all mine, was already made years ago by someone else, which is to say, language – that is to say, translation – always arises from collective consciousness. Be factual, you say? As I mentioned, foreigners simply know. I will name the surviving orphans one by one in honor of the nameless children who are still homesick, captive, in detention, in internment, in concentration camps, in seas, in deserts, on Planet Nine, and such. And let’s not forget the children who are still in school.
Excerpt from Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. I teared up during her acceptance speech, which I watched during the NBA’s livestream. The translations, which are difficult to read, can be found at Granta.
Every month in quarantine felt Very Long and same-y, but November has been an exception to that pattern. After all, this month has shouldered both a grueling election and a stressful holiday, two events of nationwide importance that brought the country together, divided it, had everyone talking about the same things, while showing that we are not all on the same page.
When I was growing up I had a very shallow understanding of US politics and Thanksgiving, and that wasn’t necessarily because I was young and uninformed, but rather because neither was relevant to my life back then. I remember high-fiving friends at lunch when we found out that Obama won (the main thing people at school talked about was that he represented hope, and was pro-same sex marriage), and when Thanksgiving rolled around I remember some of my American friends posted photos of their turkeys. But it wasn’t until 2015, the year I left Hong Kong for Chicago, that I’d first taste stuffing (love it) or learn what the electoral college was (don’t love it so much).
Even now, I feel like I’m standing on the outside and looking in—or looking from the sidelines?—when I see people talk about the election and Thanksgiving. I do think that voting is important and that carving a turkey can be a really nice moment, but there might always be a part of me that feels like these are narratives I’m just not a part of. But this year, as Kevin and I walked past Kamala Harris’s childhood home in Berkeley (a few blocks from our place) shortly after the election was called, we found ourselves among a crowd of people who were playing music, dancing, celebrating. It was impossible to not feel a sense of collective effervescence right there, even as alarm bells were going off in my head (pandemic! people! crowd! gathering! pandemic!). Which brings me to Thanksgiving, a holiday that often hinges on swathes of people coming together. Of course, now is not the time to be flying places and sitting at the dining table with old relatives, but many Americans took that risk nonetheless this November. I found myself sitting at home fuming about the “selfishness of Americans” and feeling terribly homesick for Hong Kong and Taiwan. I don’t think I will ever self-identify as an American, I told myself, downloading Cantonese podcasts and reading Chinese texts ferociously. But I know that I’m selfish too, even though I’m not risking other people’s lives for my mundane needs this holiday season. How difficult it is to hold oneself accountable for one’s actions, especially as the world we live in grows more complicated.
Kevin and I cooked enough food to feed seven people on Thursday, and had a nice two-person Thanksgiving at home. Although I pelted him with annoying questions in the aftermath (Why are so many side dishes sweet? Why do Americans go out of their way to make turkey, a difficult bird to bake, once a year?), we also took long walks and talked about gratitude. It’s been a miserable but also magical year, and as much as I sit at the table and sigh about being morose, the simple pleasures of being alive and with someone I love are not lost on me.
🎬 This month, we finished watching The Great British Bake Off! Our favorite contestant won, so we’re happy. The final episode was a real tear-jerker. We also watched The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix limited series about an orphan-turned-chess whiz. The series stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who makes playing chess seem effortless, sexy, and dangerous. She’s relentlessly standoffish throughout the show, and almost always looks impeccable despite struggling with an addiction problem that seems potent enough to topple her. Learning chess begins as a fantasy for her (she hallucinates pieces on the ceiling), her brief relationships all seem to be founded in fantasy, and in a way the whole show hinges on us suspending our disbelief—a classic ingredient for a viral Netflix hit (the chess is cool, I admit).
Earlier this month I also watched My Octopus Teacher, a moving nature documentary about a man who forms a special relationship with an octopus (and in doing so, with nature). The scholar Sophie Lewis wrote a very persuasive Twitter thread arguing that the doc is actually about “a straight man who has a lifechanging erotic relationship with a female octopus.” And… she’s not wrong! The octopus in the doc is essentially a manic pixie dream mollusk who helps the narrator reach various epiphanies before (SPOILER) dying. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat octopus for a while.
Finally, I’m watching Start-Up, and it’s the first time I’m watching a K-drama as it airs! In other words, I can’t binge it all at once…and frankly, it’s better this way. It’s nice to savor the drama over a long period of time, as opposed to gobbling it all up in a week. The drama centers on rising entrepreneurs/engineers trying to find purpose and love in the start-up economy. I’ll say more next month when the series wraps up…
📚 November has been a fruitful reading month. I read Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear, a novel about a translator who goes on a quest to find the Brazilian writer she’s translating, who suddenly goes missing. The book kind of turns into a thriller, which I wasn’t expecting, but it’s very much a love letter to translation as well (Novey is a translator).
For translation to be an art … you have to make the uncomfortable but necessary transgressions that an artist makes.
Then I read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, a book that many have recommended to me and has been on my to-read list for a while. Trick Mirror is a collection of seven essays and they are spellbinding. Seriously, Tolentino is worth all the hype. Throughout the book, she’s endlessly clever, persuasive, intimate, and witty, which are some of the best qualities a writer can have. She comfortably writes at the intersection of pop culture and highbrow analysis, citing Britney Spears and the Bible in the same essay. She’ll talk about the very contemporary trends of athleisure and barre classes while discussing enclothed cognition and the 1950s origins of the Barre Method. One of the best essays, “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” charts the past decade through seven crucial “scams” (including the Fyre Festival, Theranos, Trump’s Election). At the center of the collection is a problem—have we all been duped, and/or are we all delusional? Seeing only what other want us to see or what we want ourselves to see, as if looking through a trick mirror? Tolentino describes the “trick mirrors” at work in society, in institutions, and in her own life. She is thoroughly self-aware and rigorously critical of every assumption. We could all learn something from her.
A lot of my reading this month has also come, blissfully, from translation. In the name of translation, I’ve Googled a lot of tree names, used the Hong Kong Herbarium Database as a primary resource, learned about Jesus’s Way of Suffering, read Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad (it’s like the Japanese version of The Little Prince), looked up a Zhuangzi reference… after spending hours translating passages about autumn leaves, every red or yellowing tree that I pass on my jogs now seem more familiar, more intimate. I translated a poem about azaleas and was super excited that Kevin and I got to check out a rhododendron garden this month (next to Lake Merritt, a lagoon and National Historical Landmark in Oakland). In Chinese, 杜鵑 means both “azalea” and “cuckoo,” and while there’s no such twinship in English, translation can indeed make you look at the world in a different way.
🎶 This month, Grammy nominations were announced! My girl Taylor scored six nominations, which didn’t surprise me. There was no way folklore wasn’t getting nomm’ed this year, especially given the Aaron Dessner collab. That being said, the Grammys have a history of snubbing Taylor (see: Lover, Red). As a result, Swifties have learned not to take them too seriously… I’m thrilled that she’s nominated, but also wary at the same time, because I’ve spent so long trying to de-emphasize the Grammys’ importance in my mind. And to be honest, the Grammys are still kind of the Scammys. Justin Bieber’s “Yummy” (a meh song that did meh on the charts) was nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance while The Weeknd’s astonishing “Blinding Lights” (a song that broke Billboard records while being critically acclaimed) was not nominated for anything at all. In fact, The Weeknd’s omission can scarcely be called a “snub.” Something is UP! To make things even more suspicious, Bieber has been complaining that his album was mis-categorized as “pop,” for he intentionally set out to make an R&B album. Personally, I think his statement a classic PR trick aiming to distract the press from asking the obvious question: why was he nominated in the first place? There are a lot of closed doors involved in the Grammys nomination process, so who knows what’s really happening. As Abel of The Weeknd says, “the Grammys remain corrupt.”
But in other news, I rediscovered my love for Simon and Garfunkel this month. Maybe because Thanksgiving has got me thinking of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, and their lovely rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” In general, I’m re-entering a folky phase. Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” and Dolly Parton & Chet Akin’s duet of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” have been on repeat lately.
I’m tired of runnin’ ’round lookin’ For answers to questions that I already know I could build me a castle of memories Just to have somewhere to go
Count the days and the nights that it takes To get back in the saddle again Feed the pigeons some clay, turn the night into day Start talkin’ again, when I know what to say
💬 For better or for worse, “scam” is my word of the month. Conceptually, it’s been everywhere this November. First, the country voted a scamming president out of the Oval Office, and he proceeded to spend the weeks following claiming that the election was a giant scam. Too many Americans have scammed themselves (and others) into believing that traveling across the country for Thanksgiving this year is a safe, or even reasonable, proposition. Netflix is scamming people into bingeing shows that are actually just “okay” or actually quite bad (Emily in Paris, for one) but seem worth the hours because everyone on the Internet talks about them and we’re in a pandemic. And on top of all this I’m afraid that I’m allowing myself to be scammed into believing that I’m doing “well,” or that I’ve royally messed up, or that everything Twitter tells me is true, and so on…
We are all what we do, and we do what we’re used to, and like so many people in my generation, I was raised from adolescence to this fragile, frantic, unstable adulthood on a relentless demonstration that scamming pays.
It is true there is not enough beauty in the world. It is also true that I am not competent to restore it. Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.
I am at work, though I am silent.
misery of the world bounds us on either side, an alley
lined with trees; we are
companions here, not speaking, each with his own thoughts;
behind the trees, iron gates of the private houses, the shuttered rooms
somehow deserted, abandoned,
as though it were the artist’s duty to create hope, but out of what? what?
the word itself false, a device to refute perception— At the intersection,
ornamental lights of the season.
I was young here. Riding the subway with my small book as though to defend myself against
the same world:
you are not alone, the poem said, in the dark tunnel.
— October (5), Louise Gluck
Louise Gluck received the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this month for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” There is always hubbub and controversy surrounding the prize, no matter whom it goes to, so I feel like I pay less attention to it every year. Nonetheless, Gluck’s October feels especially resonant this month. The poems (you can read the other parts here) are heavy with grief, violence, and despair, which are unfortunately relevant moods for a month saturated with pandemic and polls–related anxiety. The poem acknowledges both hope and hopelessness, which seem to receive equal weight throughout the sequence—but I particularly like how this section ends by personifying the poem as a companion. This month, I also felt like language, literature, and art illuminated tunnels for me.
It’s easy to assume by default that nothing much happens these days (we’re working from home and staying at home, there’s nothing new), but if I really cast my memory back to the first of October I’m inclined to conclude that it was a comparatively eventful month. Cynthia flew back to Taiwan, a country that just surpassed 200 days without a locally-transmitted COVID-19 case. From what I’ve heard from my sister, mom, and aunt about their experience landing and quarantining in Taiwan, it’s not difficult for me to see why Taiwan has so successfully contained the pandemic. This month the ALTA conference that I’d been preparing for also took place, and I had the opportunity to present some of my translations of Chung Kwok-keung’s work on two free panels. Although in a pandemic-free timeline I could have been in Arizona for the conference, I must say that the virtual format worked surprisingly well! It allowed folks who normally could not have attended the conference to tune in, and from a presenter’s perspective, I also felt less nervous because I could present from the comfort of my own home. Kevin and I have also been busy making crosswords this month, and 10 of our puzzles were recently featured on the Redstone Games’ mobile app, which you can download here (Android / iPhone). As a kid, I never thought that I’d one day be paid for translation and crosswords, and I’m both grateful for these opportunities while hyper-aware of the privilege that affords me these possibilities. Finally, I’m pleased to say that my Korean learning has continued this month! Which brings me to…
🎬 I watched three K-dramas this October! Heads up: I am about to ramble extensively about them so feel free to skip ahead if you aren’t interested… 1) Legend of the Blue Sea is a love story about a con-artist (Lee Min-ho) and mermaid (Jun Ji-hyun) who meet in present-day South Korea, but have actually crossed paths before—in the Joseon era. The mermaid has superhuman strength and can erase people’s memories with a single touch, but must learn how to survive on land. LOTBS was written by the same writer who wrote Crash Landing on You (so I had high expectations), and it was rewarding and amusing to see how similar tropes recur in both dramas. 2) The King: Eternal Monarch is set in two parallel worlds: the Republic of Korea and the fictional Kingdom of Corea. Lee Min-ho plays Lee Gon, the King of Corea, who owns half of a magical flute (his traitorous uncle owns the other half) that allows him to travel between worlds. He accidentally travels to the Republic of Korea and meets Jung Tae-eul (Kim Go-eun), a police officer whose ID card he has had since he was a child. If all that sounds confusing, it’s because the show is actually kind of hard to follow. But overall TKEM rewards viewers who enjoy theorizing, forgive plot holes, tolerate incessant product placement, are good at remembering faces (lots of dopplegangers), and stan Lee min-ho. Finally, I watched 3)Goblin, the show that in part influenced me to watch TKEM in the first place (same writer and same actress, Kim Go-eun). Goblin (also translated as Guardian: The Lonely and Great God), follows the story of a 939-year-old goblin (dokkaebi 도깨비), his fated bride Ji Eun-tak (Kim Go-eun), a grim reaper, and the owner of a BBQ Olive Chicken store named Sunny. The Goblin can only die when the sword that “killed” him, which is still stuck in his chest, is removed by his bride. Of course, things get complicated when he falls in love with Eun-tak and realizes he doesn’t want to die anymore if it means they can’t be together. Another complication is that Eun-tak herself is a “miscellaneously omitted person,” someone who escaped death once (the goblin saved her pregnant mother) and thus will always be followed by it (also, she can see ghosts). And on top of all this, there is a ~reincarnation~ story line that ties the past and present together. Overall, it’s a remarkably beautiful story about love, friendship, fate, and forgiveness. Particularly through the grim reaper’s storyline, the show explores moving questions about mortality and memory. Of all the dramas I’ve watched so far, none of them has made me cry as much as Goblin—I honestly sobbed through the last three episodes. So. Good!!
If there is one theme that is absolutely paramount in all the K-dramas I’ve seen so far, it’s FATE, 운명. The signposting is transparent; in Goblin, Eun-tak even wears a necklace with the French word Destin on it. The idea that those who are fated to meet will always find their way back to each other is particularly pronounced in LOTBS and Goblin, which both have storylines that include reincarnated lovers. And the idea that fate is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem also comes across in TKEM. Are two people fated to meet because of what happens in the past, or what happens in the future that in a roundabout way also affects the past? 🤷
I find it interesting to compare the K-dramas I watched with another show Kevin and I finished this month, The Good Place. The Good Place explores the theme of mortality through a hypothetical afterlife in which you either go to “The Good Place” or “The Bad Place” depending on how many points you “earned” for being a good person in life. The show champions the idea that no matter how many mistakes you’ve made, you can always strive to be a better version of yourself. The characters in The Good Place get “rebooted” over and over again, and while it’s not quite “reincarnation,” the same four friends always end up together again. But interestingly, this is not framed as a result of “fate” or “destiny.” The notion of a “soulmate” is also first introduced, and then later dismissed (although perhaps not entirely). At one point, Eleanor (protagonist played by Kristen Bell) wonders whether free will truly exists in a world where everything is determined by factors outside one’s own control, even in the afterlife. The show is warm, clever, and ferociously funny. It would be nice if a “Good Place” really does exist!
📚 I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation this month; I loved Offill’s Last Things, so was looking forward to reading another book by her. Truthfully, though, while the prose in the book is compact and graceful, I felt like the novel overall was lacking “umph.” It’s a portrait of marriage, motherhood, and balancing the writer-domestic life, but I felt like its speaker was too “invisible.” Maybe this was the point? I might have felt differently if I encountered the book later in life.
I did finally get round to reading Cathy Park Hong’s powerful Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. The book falls into one of my favorite genres, the mishmash of cultural criticism and personal essay. In the book, Hong interrogates the position of Asian Americans in the US by looking at poetry, her own life, and history. In particular, I found the chapters of the book where Hong talks about the legacy of poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha most moving and haunting. Cha was a poet and artist best known for her 1982 book Dictee. But an aspect of her life that is often silenced, although not in Hong’s book, is her brutal death—just a week after Dictee was published, Cha was raped and murdered.
So much of the book made me feel indignant and sad. But there were also moments that felt so resonant, even comforting. Here’s one example:
English is our ever-expanding neoliberal lingua franca, the consumer language of brand recognition and outsourced labor. The more developing the nation, the more in need that nation is of a copy editor.
The book’s title comes from literary critic Sianne Ngai, who “wrote extensively on the affective qualities of ugly feelings, negative emotions—like envy, irritation, and boredom—symptomatic of today’s late-capitalist gig economy. Like ugly feelings, minor feelings are ‘non-cathartic states of emotion’ with ‘a remarkable capacity for duration.'”
Minor feelings occur when American optimism is forced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, Things are the same. You are told, ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure.
Hong also frames minor feelings in terms of literary forms; “because minor feelings are ongoing, they lend themselves more readily to forms and genres that are themselves serial, such as the graphic novel or the serial poem”—or, I wonder…the blog post? Lol…
🎶 My playlist this month just has been more Korean songs, with the addition of some Blackpink hits (I just watched their documentary last night)!
💬 My word of the month has to be fate. How are constructs of face thrust upon us, and how do we challenge or embrace those circumstances? Much to think about.