A Mishmash Guide to Art and Life #5

On imagining the secret lives of famous women, a different kind of horse movie, the tyranny of convenience, etc.

Hello again!

Diving right in: You’ll notice I’ve done some renaming and recategorising within this newsletter to cohere things. Because I’m about to start an occasional series called Mark—an adaptation of what was originally conceived as an indie print magazine, which I’ve decided I’m not ready to dive into just yet because it’ll get in the way of my main work. At the same time, I want to get started on it already for fear I’ll never make it happen, and the best avenue to do that right now, even in half measures, is this newsletter, in all its jumble and variety: my head, basically.

So hang on, I’ll soon have the first dispatch of Mark for you. Until then, here’s another dash of accumulated notes on what I’ve been reading, watching, and contemplating.

[Jennine Pommy Vega, Seven Arts Coffee Gallery, New York City, 1959. From Dialogues with Solitude by David Heath. “The world Mr. Heath presents is quiet and contemplative; he even renders war mute, still and full of meaning.”]
The places we make & the places that make us

Back when I was in my twenties, I cooked lunch in a bakery and restaurant in an island town. It was a summer-tourist place, but we were open year-round. Especially in winter, after the noontime rush died down, I used to stand at the door to the dining room and listen to the voices of customers troubling things out or talking town politics, going over finances or gossiping, creating their own psalm. It was the blend of voices blooming and falling that I loved, the music of a break in the day. Believing that I had a small part in making that sound possible helped me stick to the job.

Jane Brox
A Social—and Personal—History of Silence” (New Yorker)

#2019fictionchallenge
(and an interview with the author)

Amanda Lee Koe: Not just as a writer but as a person, I’m always looking for the intimate gap in history, the lateral wormhole in time.

I really enjoyed Amanda Lee Koe’s debut short story collection, Ministry of Moral Panic, when I read it a few years ago. (Remember that charming opening story? I read it over a few times.) She’s a brilliant stylist, her voice a jolt of jazz: completely alive on the page, with a hint of mutiny in even the most down-and-out characters.

So I was very excited about reading her debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star, and speaking to her about it for Electric Literature. I pored over her Instagram in the run-up to our chat for clues, which proved very useful in formulating some questions… you’ll see what I mean ;)

Electric Literature’s author interviews tend to be angled rather than a free-ranging conversation, and I’d chosen to slant mine on how Koe ponders the multitudes contained in each of us, the blurred lines between art and life, and how the question of where we find our most “authentic” selves has no simple answer.

And perhaps, subconsciously, in asking Koe about her book and her experience, I was also asking her about the ideas I’ve been thinking about—for one, about growing up in places like Singapore and Malaysia with a range of eclectic, cherrypicked influences not rooted in one’s own living experience, and how that shapes one’s identity, and how one might convey that to the rest of the world.

ALK: Because I didn’t ever feel like I belonged in contemporary Singapore, because in my formative years people were always telling me I was wrong, or abnormal, or that I had to change, I think that to stay alive on the inside, I needed very deeply to believe that I was not wrong, I was only in the wrong time and place.

Read the interview here. Koe expresses herself uniquely, and it turned out to be a fascinating, insightful exchange. I daresay you’ll find something you can relate to.

In addition, here’s one Q&A that got cut from the final piece:

In your novel, it seems that to live fully, one has to live on a heightened plane—the antidote of the line you have one character say about Ingrid Bergman: “She’s too real.” And I’m thinking of what Marlene asks herself: “What was her magic? And where did it live?”

ALK: It’s funny but Ingrid Bergman says in an Ingmar Bergman film, I think it was Autumn Sonata: “I could always live in my art, but not in my life.”

To be honest, and it sounds so terrible to admit this, but before I started to write seriously, I didn’t really care if I lived or died. Sure, I was curious about the process, but I wasn’t that invested in the outcome. I used to lead a more impulsive, thrill-seeking life, I went down shady alleys, made the most impractical plans, had disastrous love affairs, took strangers up on weird propositions. 

But ever since I found I could write, I’ve led a much calmer, quieter life. I need things to be peaceful in my life now, so I can be disciplined in the work that is required for a sustained form like the novel. Making bad decisions in my life was just a way to see what would happen next. Looking back now, I feel like it was not propelled by “self-destructive behavior”, but by something more unknowable that I would call narrative hunger. Surely I can’t be alone in feeling this; there must be others out there with the same impulse. And because I didn’t have literature then, I thought I had to live it out. 

Now, however, I get to bring that narrativity, that hunger, to the page from the safety of me being alone in my pajamas at my desk! So in the midst of this physical comfort, I try to remind myself to honor the philosophical sense of that mental risk: Don’t take shortcuts. Don’t go for the schematic interpretation. Don’t believe that something can’t happen just because it isn’t conventionally done. 

For the readers among you, additional thoughts on the book:

The writing is as strong as you’d expect, and the characters indelible—each interaction revealing something profound about that hackneyed shorthand for our individual complexities: “the human condition”. In its voracity, however, I thought the book sometimes felt too sprawling, with so many narrative strands competing for primacy. It also sometimes felt just a little too enamoured of the real lives it’s based on, unable to relinquish facts more fantastic than fiction that don’t always propel the narrative along—something I’m very sympathetic to! And in this vein, perhaps it helps to think of the book as a grand tapestry of many different stories…

All things considered though, when paced and savoured (and there are many lines to savour!) Delayed Rays of a Star is a darkly sexy, moving, and funny read about complicated women and complicated people who, well, want unapologetically. Like its characters, it’s an ambitious book, and I’m looking forward to Koe’s future work. It’s also an example of what’s possible when a writer is liberated from feeling that they need to hew to their own culture, history, and geography (which doesn’t mean they’re any less connected to it), so that they may choose to write “capaciously” enough, as Koe says, to encompass many worlds at once. It feels like a kind of permission.

My favourite character in the book? Bébé, a Chinese housemaid who had originally been sex-trafficked into France:

Bébé had never allowed herself to enjoy the city as she walked through it, because she thought it was painfully clear that she was not in Paris for leisure. She knew her place, and should act in accordance with that knowledge. She held her head highest when she was in her maid uniform. Because no one had to guess at who or what she was, she could be.

Read a longer excerpt about Bébé at Granta. They’re some of my favourite passages from the novel.

P.S. Thanks, Doubleday, for shipping me a stately hard copy of the U.S. edition. In Malaysia and Singapore, bookshops will carry the UK edition.

A ballad of the human heart

Don José, watching his son toast the houses he would build for Peru's homeless, watching his son tremble with emotion at the warmth of the family surrounding him, recognized that Fernando's heart was like his own: nostalgic but combative, caring but suspicious, able to bundle great ideas into intractable knots of personal anxiety. It is the way men begin to carry the world with them, the way they become responsible for it, not through their minds, but through their hearts.

Daniel Alarcón
“War by Candlelight” (from War by Candlelight)

Something I watched recently

The Mustang
By Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

(Not to be confused with Mustang, a 2015 film by Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven about a group of adolescent girls coming of age in a conservative Turkish village, which is also worth watching.)

I think horse movies were the first movies I ever watched. Oh, how many times did I watch The Silver Brumby, a 1993 Australian film starring a pre-fame Russell Crowe as the villain; and how many half-baked short stories did I write about horses? I even built a couple of Geocities websites sharing trivia I’d learnt from my research on certain breeds of horses. All before I ever had any real interaction with one.

Recently, having read about a new slew of arthouse horse films, I watched The Mustang, starring Matthias Schoenaerts (of Rust and Bone fame alongside the inimitable Marion Cotillard). It’s about an inmate who’s been given the chance to learn how to gentle mustangs as part of a prison rehabilitation programme. It’s a turn from some of the other horse movies I’ve seen—in that they tended to be more coming-of-age stories like Lean on Pete or War Horse, or explorations of the jockey-horse relationship in Seabiscuit (honestly one of my favourite movies, and true stories, of all time), whereas The Mustang is grittier and the bond more unexpected: one between grown man and beast that is both violent and redeeming.

There’s a scene where, after some frustrating hours of trying to get through to the horse he’s been tasked to work with, the man grows weary and sits in a slump. For a while, the horse edges out of the frame, to get as far away from the man as possible; and you see the man looking dejectedly into the distance, breathing hard, his eyes desperate… But then, the horse re-enters the frame, from above, and dips its head gently next to the man’s face.

And the man can’t believe it. For a moment he’s stunned, unsure how to react. Then he’s reaching out, awkwardly, to touch the horse’s nose. When the horse doesn’t rear away, he slowly bends his head to the horse’s head. His pregnant daughter had told him that he was no good at taking care of anything or anyone, and now he’s so overcome he struggles to hold back tears. (It has to be said: Matthias Schoenaerts is very good at “crying like a man”!)

There are a couple of other moments I go back to, though as a whole, the film isn’t entirely subtle. When stories involve a great beast, there’s often a parallel drawn to human nature; and in this film, as it was in Rust and Bone (which involved a killer whale), I guess it’s about how some animals, and some people, just can’t be tamed.

Still, the movie’s epilogue strikes a hopeful note. There’s a line informing the audience that inmates who have worked with mustangs have proven less likely to reoffend when they get out of prison. The thought of that moved me—I’m not a cynic yet.

If you want to know more about the rehabilitation programme in real life, check this and this out.

P.S. A song from the soundtrack: “Avalanche” by Leonard Cohen.

Some words to live by

An unwelcome consequence of living in a world where everything is “easy” is that the only skill that matters is the ability to multitask. At the extreme, we don’t actually do anything; we only arrange what will be done, which is a flimsy basis for a life.

Tim Wu
The Tyranny of Convenience” (New York Times)

Life stranger than fiction, kindling thoughts, glimpses of horror & beauty

# This dramatic photo feature by James Whitlow Delano on the dystopian reality of gold-mining in the highest permanent human settlement in the world—La Rinconada, Peru—reminded me of this William Finnegan story, which remains one of my favourite nonfiction pieces. It’s exactly the sort of piece I want to do: an immersive mix of reportage and travelogue.

# William Langewiesche, apparently respected aviation writer, argues that, actually, MH370 isn’t really the mystery everyone thinks it is—in a piece that’s narratively strong and seemingly persuasive. I was ready to believe it. Then came this rebuttal. Guess the verdict’s still out then…?

# Wesley Morris, a self-described “single black gay man”, charts the evolution of romantic comedies and what it says about us, and argues for their comeback, as “the only genre committed to letting relatively ordinary people—no capes, no spaceships, no infinite sequels—figure out how to deal meaningfully with another human being.”

# From the new UK-based Tortoise Media (the latest champion of slow journalism), a fascinating profile by Nicky Woolf: “8chan is a monster, but its creator had no idea what it would become. He was just a kid.”

# Since Chernobyl’s now on the travel radar, thanks to the HBO series, here’s a beautifully written, very atmospheric, very surprising piece I remember by Henry Shukman: “It's not just the forest that's come back but all its creatures. It's the land of Baba Yaga, the old witch of Russian folktales. Is this the world before humanity? Or after? Is there a difference?”

# Watch Vice’s Isobel Yeung—who has enviable ladyswagger!—go undercover as a travel blogger in Xinjiang, which mandated riding camels and flashing peace signs. She’s gotten some flack from other journalists for stretching ethical boundaries, but equally, other journalists, as well as Uighur activists, have come to her defence.

# Stranger Things is back. I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, but I know friends who take it fairly seriously. This is for them: The Rise of the Professional Dungeon Master” by Mary Pilon. Enough said.

# An incredibly moving essay from historian Jill Lepore about being a mother and a writer, and the bonds between women. “My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest.”

# An uplifting story by Mary Hui on Hong Kong’s domestic workers who “squeeze in training runs before the crack of dawn or late at night, and find creative ways to turn their household duties into training opportunities”.

# On the heels of neighbourly spats like this, here’s a detailed New Naratif piece comparing hawker food and culture in Malaysia and Singapore. (I had actually pitched the same idea to another food-centric publication, but they didn’t bite!)

Something to tickle your funny bone

Haha, this is atrociously hilarious! I’ve never actually seen a single full episode…

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Yours,
E.

www.emilyding.me
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The Mishmash Guide to Art and Life #4

On unbalanced lives that work, the death of truth, love letters, etc.

[“Humanly Impossible”, 1932. A self-portrait by Herbert Bayer.]
The places we make & the places that make us

Every great bar is a breath of paradise, and the best ones know, in their gleaming surfaces, what Proust meant when he said that the true paradises are the paradises we have lost.

Andrew O’Hagan
A Love Letter to Drinking in Bars

Reading notes

I picked this up after watching Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary in which Alex Honnold’s uncompromising single-mindedness is on full display. I might have found mention of it in an article related to the documentary; I can’t remember. When I posted about digging into this on social media, several people got in touch to ask for a takeaway. Here it is.

Truth us, I chafe a little against overzealous exhortations by wellness experts to live a more balanced life. It doesn’t take much for me to become fully immersed in a task (if it’s a task I’m interested in), at the expense of other things like sleep, exercise, or just pure fun; and it’s been like this since I was a child, whether it was reading, writing, coding websites, or making newsletters—actual ones, back then. I get “in the zone”, so to speak—time disappears, though I’m not so sure that conscious struggle does, for me —and I can spend an entire day steeped in one thing, or go two weeks without seeing anybody when I’m consumed by a project.

Yet, this doesn’t necessarily make me feel disciplined or effective; in fact, I feel it can make me fixate too much on the little details and risk losing sight of the bigger picture. So when I came across this book, its seeming promise that living an unbalanced life could be good for you rather than bad for you sounded attractive to me. Having now read the book, however, there are, of course, qualifications to its seemingly benevolent outlook on passion.

In fact, the authors conclude that yes, passion can be very, very bad (that it toes the same line as addiction), but it can also be good and “harmonious”—i.e. passion that is a manifestation of your true self; passion for the process rather than the results; passion for the long haul despite doubts and difficulties; passion that connects you with a wider community; passion with purpose and meaning; passion that elevates not just your work but also your life.

But even when it is the good kind, they concede, “Passion is disruptive.”

Think about your own experiences. During the times when you’ve felt most alive, have you also felt balanced? For us personally, the answer is a resounding no.

However, the authors suggest, there is a different way to look at it. For one, living an unbalanced life is neither good nor bad in itself:

So long as your passion is harmonious and you are aware of what you’re sacrificing to pursue it, then there is no “wrong” choice. The only wrong choice is losing the ability to consciously make one.

The problem isn’t that you sacrifice a lot for passion, but that it’s all too easy to let the inertia of a passionate experience carry you forward without ever really evaluating what you’re sacrificing—for example, time with friends and family, other hobbies, even simple pleasures like catching up on the latest episode of your favorite television show.

(The “inertia” of passion sounds counterintuitive, but is very apt!)

For another, they say, it helps to evaluate how balanced your life is on a macro scale—over the totality of your days:

For some people, when you zoom in on any given day, week, month, or maybe even year, they don’t appear at all balanced. But when you zoom out and look across the totality of their lives, they are actually quite balanced and whole. This is the kind of balance to strive for.

So maybe someone takes a few years off from their passion to have a family, or to take care of a sick parent, or to pursue another passion. Maybe you don’t see your friends for weeks, but when you do, you take whole days off to spend with them. (Guilty.) Maybe you work non-stop for two weeks, but then give yourself a couple days of rest. (Guilty.) I do better with big chunks of deep time spent doing one thing—even within a single pursuit, like telling stories: I prefer to spend a whole day pitching, a whole day researching, a whole day pounding pavements, a whole day writing, a whole day chasing up payments and admin stuff. I’m more focused and effective that way than when I try to carve up one day into doing many things.

Not all the case studies the authors employ feel hugely convincing to me, but the book is a good read overall and I’d recommend it if, like me, you need to hear what this book says, even if on some level you already know it. I also enjoyed reading about how the word “passion” has evolved—did you know that it comes from the Latin word passio, which means suffering (e.g. “the passion of the Christ”)?—and about how, as derived from a nascent field of research, a passionate character owes partly to biology: the neurochemical dopamine, which is released prior to or during a pursuit, not after. It’s what gets you hooked on the feeling of the chase, not the achievement. So the more insensitive to dopamine you are, the more persistent you are.

Another long passage I highlighted, which applies for me not just on a general but also micro level—as a reminder to follow my nose when an idea for a story interests me, and not talk myself out of it before I even begin:

When you come across an activity or idea that subtly pulls you toward it, you are faced with a choice: Do you grant yourself permission to lean in and further explore? Or do you let it go, ignoring it and writing it off as a momentary blip of intrigue? If you choose to ignore, you send a strong message—and one that quickly gets encoded in your brain—that the activity or idea carries little value. The next time you encounter something similar, your brain won’t send a signal for excitement; it will have already gotten the message that “there’s nothing to pursue here.”

Unfortunately, far too often when a feeling of intrigue or curiosity arises, we simply let it go. In some cases, we tell ourselves we’re too busy, quickly becoming distracted by our smartphones or the next item on our to-do list. Other times, we tell ourselves that wherever an initial spark of intrigue is leading must not be for us because it conflicts with our perceived identity; a form of resistance that we call “I couldn’t possibly do this” syndrome. Common examples of “I couldn’t possibly do this” syndrome include: “I went to and paid for business school, why should I be concerned with art?” “I’m a physician, not an essay writer.” “I’m sixty-four years old and I’ve never worked with my hands, why start now?”

“I couldn’t possibly do this” syndrome only grows stronger with age. It also creates a formidable sense of path dependency, or the narrative that you are on a certain path, and the best—if not only—option is to stay on it. But path dependency prevents you from exploring opportunities that could lead to a better and more fulfilling life. You’ll never know if you’re truly on the right path unless you allow yourself to explore and pursue the things that capture your attention, even if they seem to conflict with the current path or identity you’ve constructed for yourself.

One thing, though, still niggles at me. The authors talk about how passion should be driven from within, not without. They also say that, when passion is driven from within, success tends to come as a by-product. And I’d like to think that’s true, but I’m not sure that it is. It begs the question: Can one still justify passion and an unbalanced life to oneself, if one is never recognised for it? I’m thinking of the writers who died before anyone ever paid them any mind, like Richard Yates and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Then again, maybe that’s missing the point. Maybe both men couldn’t have helped but write anyway, in the faint hopes of breaking through to an audience, even if they’d known they were never going to be recognised within their lifetime. Because it’s an urge, a compulsion, something they just do.

But no, wait, really, it’s a fair question: What if, despite all one’s passion, one just never becomes very good, whether by one’s own definition or others’? What then?

More on Goodreads.


As Kakutani quotes Hannah Arendt:

The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.

Without planning, this book ties in exactly to the anxieties I expressed in May’s letter. It’s obviously a little American-heavy in its references, but the thinking and arguments that underline it are compelling and the developments it speaks of quite universal. It validates what I’ve been feeling, especially regarding how language has broken down as a tool for communicating, which, to my mind, poses an existential crisis like no other. (Well, until I heard about deepfakes—particularly relevant to Malaysian (sex) politics right now—and the democratisation of its technology, but that is a whole other can of worms.)

What’s great about this book is the comprehensive context and history Kakutani lays out on the broader cultural, social, and political dynamics that had been percolating for decades which brought us to this point: the breakdown of truth as an ideal. She touches on the rise of subjectivity and narcissism, the rise of the amateur and the increasing contempt for experts, the merging of news and politics with entertainment, and the replacement with reason with emotion.

Honestly, if there’s one book you read this year, please make it this. Maybe it’ll get more of us on the same page, and get us all to recognise the respect that facts should be treated with, and then maybe we can have some hope of understanding one another. This isn’t aimed just at those who baldly wage assaults on facts, but, I think, is even more important for those who are simply agnostic or indifferent about them, or who think that playing loose with facts is a small price to pay for increased sophistication (or sophistry) in language, communication, and literature.

What I found particularly important and fascinating was what she said about how the rise of postmodernism in the ‘60s, though it contributed to avant garde breakthroughs in art and literature, has been particularly problematic in the fields of social sciences and history in its claim that everything is subjective:

[…] broadly speaking, postmodernist arguments deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception, contending that knowledge is filtered through the prisms of class, race, gender and other variables. […] Language is seen as unreliable and unstable (part for the unbridgeable gap between what is said and what is meant), and even the notion of people acting as fully rational, autonomous individuals is discounted, as each of us is shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by a particular time and culture.

The postmodernist argument that all truths are partial (and a function of one’s perspective) led to the related argument that there are many legitimate ways to understand or represent an event. This both encouraged a more egalitarian discourse and made it possible for the voices of the previously disenfranchised to be heard. But it’s also been exploited by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated.

As on so many other subjects, [George] Orwell saw the perils of this sort of thinking decades ago. In a 1943 essay, he wrote, “What is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.

In a long essay about contemporary culture, [David Foster] Wallace argued that while postmodern irony could be a potent instrument for blowing things up, it was essentially a “critical and destructive” theory—good at ground clearing, yet singularly “unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” Its promulgation of cynicism made writers wary of sincerity and “retrovalues like originality, depth, and integrity,” he wrote; it shielded “the heaper of scorn from scorn” while congratulating “the patrons of scorn for rising above the mass of people who still fall for outmoded pretensions.” The attitude of “I don’t really mean what I say” would be adopted by those alt-right trolls who wanted to pretend that they weren’t really bigots—they were just joking.

Where is the ambition, in Wallace’s words, “not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem”? We need something better.

Of course, we’re human and fallible and we’re never going to get all the facts right every time, but it’s still worthwhile to aspire to get as many of them right as possible, so that in interpreting them, we might come close to an aspect of the truth. But we need a baseline of facts to begin with. One might feel inclined to omit or highlight a fact depending on one’s perspective, but the fact itself shouldn’t be editable.

More on Goodreads.

& A shoutout to my favourite local indie bookshop Lit Books, where I bought this!

A ballad of the human heart

I want to rip her arm off. I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out. Some nights she lets me lick her ears and knees. I can’t talk about it.

Barry Hannah
from one of my favourite short stories (you’ve got to read the whole thing),
Love Too Long” (Airships)

Slapdash movie reviews

High Life — Wow. What did I just watch? That was my immediate reaction to this film. It’s simultaneously disturbing and mesmerising. I wasn’t sure I was able to trace a coherent logic; more a feeling, a reverie. I might describe it as a space + body horror film that reminded me just a wee bit of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. But mostly, it’s entirely its own thing. I’m still turning it over in my head, and I’ll definitely want to watch it again. And I love the way NYT critic Manohla Dargis describes Robert Pattinson’s skull, which dominates the beginning of the film: “It is an amazing head, its pale skin stretched across bone that is as geometrically distinct as a Cubist portrait.” #

If Beale Street Could Talk — A vintage romance based on a James Baldwin novel: a testament to the rapture of first love and how family, wherever you find them, takes care of family. A soul-shaking line: “Remember love is what brought you here. And if you trusted love this far, don’t panic now.” There’s some of that Terrence Malick euphoria going on, but Barry Jenkins’ style is less overwrought. It also made me think: I want to watch more romance movies. Not rom coms, not chick flicks. True romance, man. Like Cold Mountain, Brokeback Mountain—mountains do seem rather conducive to romance, don’t they?—Casablanca, The English Patient, Call Me By Your Name, Jerry Maguire, even Titanic and Romeo and Juliet… And yes, even when someone dies or they don’t ultimately stay together. #

A Private War — Unlike other times I’ve read a book or watched a movie about women war correspondents, I thought, after watching this biopic on the late Marie Colvin (the lady with the bad-ass eye patch): I definitely would not want this life. By which I mean, this film lets the despair shine through more acutely than the glamour. (And let’s not pretend otherwise: there is glamour. Read this profile.) Rosamund Pike is great in this, and I’d really like to see her in more movies. #

A Simple Favour — So stylish, so confident. Bit of a caper. I wish I were tall enough to pull off Blake Lively’s wardrobe. Anna McKendrick is hilarious. The verdict is still out on Henry Golding, though he’s better than I thought for someone who fell into acting. It feels like the film was trying to scrape a little at Gone Girl, but never quite reaches the heights of its heights or the depths of its darkness. It’s definitely funnier, though. Anyway, I loved Bridesmaids and am inclined to give Paul Feig my time. #

Colette — I do enjoy watching Keira Knightley in period dramas. This film is based on the true story of the French writer and iconoclast, whose illustrious life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, and made me feel all sorts of indignant on her behalf. Okay, her husband got her started writing, even if he claimed credit for her work under his name. But he also almost destroyed her love for it by forcing her to write in a locked room! Thinking of some of the ideas that still shackle our modern age, it’s quite amazing to think of such a free spirit existing in her time. #

Goodbye Boys — A 2006 coming-of-age Malaysian film by Bernard Chauly, set in the ‘90s—the decade in which I grew up. Follow a cohort of boy scouts on an expedition as they figure out life along the way. It’s somewhat melodramatic, but also charming. Perhaps it’s partly the nostalgia. The songs they sing while on the road in the film are songs I grew up learning in school too, like “The Happy Wanderer”—possibly in the course of being a brownie/girl guide. The film’s also set in Ipoh, my hometown, and takes you through some unexpectedly barren, scintillating expanse of Perak, my home state—the once tin-rich Kinta Valley, littered with the detritus of rusting dredges. I was moved, seeing the landscape, at once intimate and strange to me, on screen. I want to visit again. #

Something to tickle your funny bone

OK, I don’t know if you can call this a love letter, exactly. But the affectionate condescension made me laugh, a little guiltily, as much as the love it professes so brimmingly struck deep. It’s a declaration that belongs totally to another era. More at letterslive.com, which I came across while looking for things to do for an upcoming trip to England. What can I say? I’m a sucker for epistolary romance.

Life stranger than fiction, kindling thoughts, glimpses of horror and beauty

“I’m Stephanie,” the billboard reads. “I was raped by a guy like this in a place like that. I told the club and the police, but no one did anything. So I painted this billboard.” #

“Incels” are going under the knife to reshape their faces, and their dating prospects. #

The curious, very English, world of barristers’ clerks: one of the last surviving professions of Dickensian London. #

To get pregnant, Palestinian women whose partners are locked up in Israeli prisons smuggle out semen hidden in candy wrappers. #

Young girls in El Salvador commit suicide to escape the cycle of violence. #

Next time you travel, check the bonafides of your wildlife “sanctuary”. #

Read this for the next time you see “truffle” on the menu, and be rightly suspicious. #

It’s Craig Mod’s thing to take long walks in Japan and unplug himself from technology, experimenting with new ways of documenting, and he wrote another essay about it. #

Camille Billops abandoned her four-year-old daughter to become the artist she knew she was meant to be. #

The Profiler got profiled. And reportedly won’t get out of bed for anything less than USD$4 a word. Writing goals! #

Some words to live by

He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour landing on a page.

Edward St. Aubyn 
Mother’s Milk

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Yours,
E.

www.emilyding.me
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Questions, thoughts, story/travel ideas
emydeewrites@gmail.com

Letter from Northern Ireland: Blurred lines of violence, loyalty, and love

The trouble with the Troubles and what it's got to do with Game of Thrones.

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
Yeats #

[ 📷 Belfast’s most symbolic “peace wall”—yes, it still has peace walls, more than two decades after the Troubles. Extending along Cupar Way, this one is 800 metres long and 13.5 metres tall, blast-proof concrete topped with metal sheet and mesh. On one side: Shankill Road, home to Protestant unionists and loyalists who want to remain in the United Kingdom. On the other: Falls Road, home to Catholic nationalists and republicans who want a united Ireland. (The terminology: loyalists and republicans are seen to be more strident than unionists and nationalists, more willing to bear arms in pursuit of their political aims.) That metal cage covering a house’s backyard? It’s meant to ward off the occasional petrol bomb. ]

I’ve been keeping an eye on the news coming out of Northern Ireland since I visited Belfast at the turn of 2018 and wrote about its persistent politics of identity—“Memory Wars” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2018)—most visible to outsiders via a cottage industry of Troubles-themed tours, many led by former paramilitaries.

In April, it had the world’s attention again when Lyra McKee, a promising young journalist, was accidentally shot in the head by a splinter republican group called the Real IRA during a riot in Londonderry/Derry (depending where your sympathies lie; or “Stroke City”, as one Belfast resident I met called it). It was a reminder that enmities from the thirty-year conflict, which claimed over 3,600 lives, are still alive.

An important part of McKee’s work dealt with how young people in Northern Ireland are living with the trauma of the Troubles, even if they never experienced it firsthand. In an old piece circulated widely after her death, “Suicide Among the Ceasefire Babies” (The Atlantic), she wrote:

Jonny, Mick, and I were members of the generation nicknamed the Ceasefire Babies—those of us too young to remember the worst of the terror. We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, spared from the horrors of war. But still, the aftereffects of those horrors seemed to follow us.

The Troubles’ survivors would taunt us: How much had we really seen, compared to them? Yet of the 3,709 people who lost their lives to suicide between 1999 and 2014, 676 of them—nearly a fifth—were younger than 25.

She also left behind a tragic and wonderful thing: The Lost Boys, a book of nonfiction about the unresolved disappearance of children and young people during the conflict, to be published by Faber next year.

It’s tempting to blame the paramilitary attacks on Brexit, but this piece—“Paramilitaries Are Surging Again in Northern Ireland” (Foreign Policy)—notes that they have been on the rise since at least 2007, spurred by rising unemployment, drug addiction, and mental illness. Brexit simply provides a convenient raison d’être:

Northern Ireland voted by a majority to remain in the EU in 2016, and republicans have since crafted a narrative that fits neatly into their reading of Irish history: The British government is dictating the future of Northern Ireland against the will of its people, and the only way to reclaim national self-determination is to leave the United Kingdom and unify with the Republic of Ireland in the south. “Brexit has forced the IRA to refocus and has underlined how Ireland remains partitioned,” said one New IRA member in an interview with London’s Sunday Times. “It would be remiss of us not to capitalize on the opportunity.”

For more context, read “How a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit Could Open a Path to Irish Unity” (New York Times), and “Why the idea of a United Ireland is back in play” (Financial Times) by David McWilliams, who writes about Northern Ireland’s demographics and economics as propelling factors for unrest. I was also delighted by his anecdote of how he came to be an expert on Northern Ireland:

Being best man is always tricky; being best man at a northern-southern union during the Troubles posed a new set of challenges. At 3pm on the dot, the groom and I stood at the altar waiting for the bride. The entire right-hand side of the church was full: punctual northerners. It is understood everywhere that brides are usually late, but congregations are supposed to turn up on time. As we looked down from the elevated altar, almost every pew on the left, the Dubliners’ side, was empty. The southerners had, almost to a man and woman, observed the great Irish ritual of the swift one before the big do. This was in the days before mobile phones. I had to barrel down the road in the minister’s shiny red Vauxhall to shoo Dubliners into the church. The bridesmaid couldn’t stop laughing at these Dubliners, their casual attitudes to time and ritual; then, reader, she married me.


So, what’s Game of Thrones got to do with the Troubles?

It’s all in this wonderful travel essay, “What I Learned on My Vacation to Westeros” (New York Times) by Mark O’Connell, published a few days before Lyra Mckee’s death:

“I’m very glad ‘Game of Thrones’ came here,” he said. The bus was slaloming along a narrow road, the glistening expanse of the Irish Sea to our starboard side. “Before ‘Game of Thrones,’ my country was known for two things: the Titanic and the Troubles. The international perception was riots, bombs going off, blood in the streets. None of this was great for tourism.” Brian made a joke then about how the paramilitaries on both sides had handed in their weapons, and the “Game of Thrones” tour operators had swords now, and it struck me that there was something strange, and even wonderful, about the way in which real violence had been replaced by fantasy violence.

I only wish I’d been imaginative enough to pitch such a story! I’d been on one of those Game of Thrones tours—a lot of the show was filmed in Northern Ireland, and Belfast’s Titanic Studios was its home. But I’d spent most of the tour thinking—unproductively—how silly I felt to be dressing up in faux-medieval cloaks and wielding fake swords, but didn’t want to be the spoilsport when everyone was doing it and having fun.

[ 📷 Among the Gothic ruins of Inch Abbey, from the twelfth century, in County Down. It was here that Robb Stark’s banner men rallied to him after emerging victorious in the Battle of the Whispering Wood. That’s me, looking away, when someone offered to take a photo for me. I think I was thinking: I don’t really want to be caught in this get-up… ]

Self-defeating self-regard excepted, however, the tour was good fun—guided, as they usually are, by a woolly extra from the show—though you’d really have to be a hardcore film buff to care about the minutiae of what was shot where. My literary or cinematic pilgrimages are usually driven by a simple desire to cloak myself in the sentiment of a place that has lent itself to a world that made me imagine so deeply; I don’t need to know exactly where my favourite scenes happened or how the place was transformed. I want to hold on to a little mystery so I can continue to imagine—another world, another time, all the invisible layers of the place.

And it goes without saying that one of my favourite parts of the tour was meeting the show’s “direwolves”—and their owners, the Mulhalls, who also worked on the show in some capacity; it’s a total family enterprise. A mind-boggling bit of trivia for you, as told by Mulhall Sr.: “Seven years ago, the dogs cost 1,000 pounds each. Now, they’re insured for one million pounds each.” 😮

[ 📷 Direwolves were once real; the ones on the show are Northern Inuit Dogs, a crossbreed of huskies and German shepherds. These two here are Summer and Greywind; real names: Odin and Thor. One Mulhall Jr. here is apparently too good-looking to be cast as an extra on Game of Thrones. That’s what his very hirsute father said. Mulhall Sr. is an extra on the series. ]

Mark O’Connell also mentions a Game of Thrones tapestry, 263 feet in length, made by the linen weavers of Belfast. I saw it at the Ulster Museum too, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “tapestry”, with the heft the word implies. A peek:

And now, our watch is ended. To rest, Game of Thrones. I look forward to continuing the books—I’d stopped at the second one years ago!—and the upcoming prequel headlined by Naomi Watts. (Though this, and this, still bothers me.)

P.S. All that said about violence, Northern Ireland is considered safe to visit. I’d put together a detailed Belfast guide, if you want to experience a city in transition with a rich history and culture. I’d also posted an Instagram highlight on “Stroke City”.


While we’re on the subject, here are a couple of bashful soundbites on what the Troubles did to the pursuit of love, which turned up serendipitously in interviews I did with two men in Belfast. I won’t identify them here, because though we spoke on the record, I didn’t get their express permission to share the recording. (Also, I am mortified by my voice/laugh! Please excuse!)

Man #1: Early thirties, Catholic, unionist

So, sectarianism is less important for my generation. But at the same time, I have been rejected in my romantic pursuits, twice for being Catholic and once for being a unionist. (Laughs.) So, it hasn’t gone away completely yet. But we’re getting there.

Man #2: Late forties, “secular Protestant”, neither unionist nor nationalist

You know, I mean I still know people—by and large, they would be older—but I have a very good friend who’s a former loyalist prisoner. He’d be well known for being a womaniser: lots of girlfriends, he’s been married several times. But he’s very proud of the fact that he’s never had a physical relationship with a Catholic woman. You know, all his women would have to be Protestants… He would be fifteen years older than me. It’s funny, he’s proud of the fact that he has never been with “the other”, you know? Not everyone can be that choosy is the other issue. (Laughs.) He’s in a lovely position and he seems to have some degree of charm within his own community, you know?


I’ve read a lot of books about the Troubles (it was such a tricky thing to write about as an outsider, and I didn’t want to risk getting it wrong), and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe is probably the best book out there on the subject right now. Unlike the other accounts, there’s a propelling spinal narrative here—the intertwined destinies of two women caught up in forces beyond their control—that holds up all the convoluted and contested history. One is Jean McConville, a young widow and mother of ten children, who was disappeared in 1972; the other is Dolores Price, a charismatic poster girl of the I.R.A. It reads like a murder-mystery novel, but is tragically, real life. I couldn’t put it down, and read it all in two days. If you want a taster, the author wrote a New Yorker story, “The Last Testament of a Former I.R.A. Terrorist”. But I’d recommend just picking up the book. I don’t think you have to have a prior interest or knowledge in the Troubles to find this book riveting, illuminating, and moving.

In particular, I am struck by how former paramilitaries have tried to come to terms, in peacetime, with what they’ve done and the people they’ve killed—especially in the face of former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ continuous denial that he was ever in the I.R.A., even as his old comrades say they know better, and nobody really believes him anyway. On Brendan Hughes, a former IRA officer who once thought of Gerry Adams as a brother, Keefe writes:

One burden of command, in any armed conflict, is that the senior officer is obliged to make choices that may get subordinates killed. Hughes was traumatised by the orders he had given to send young volunteers—and innocent civilians—to their deaths. He replayed these events on a loop in his head. On Bloody Friday, he told Mackers, he had been the man on the ground. But it was Adams who was calling the shots. ‘Gerry was the man who made the decisions,’ he said.

By denying that he had ever played a role in the conflict, Adams was, in effect, absolving himself of any moral responsibility for catastrophes like Bloody Friday—and, in the process, disowning his one-time subordinates, like Brendan Hughes. ‘I’m disgusted with the whole thing,’ Hughes said. ‘It means that people like myself… have to carry the responsibility of all those deaths.’ If all that carnage had at least succeeded in forcing the British out of Ireland, then Hughes might be able to justify, to himself, the actions he had taken. But he felt robbed of any such rational for absolution. ‘As everything has turned out,’ he said, ‘not one death was worth it.’

‘I mean, there’s things that you can say and things you can’t say,’ he reflected. ‘I’m not going to stand up on a platform and say I was involved in the shooting of a soldier or involved in the planning of operations in England. But I’m certainly not going to stand up and deny it. And to hear people who I would have died for, and almost did on a few occasions, stand up and deny the part in history that he has played—the part in the war that he has played, the part in the war that he directed—and deny it is totally disgusting and a disgrace to all the people who have died.’

Writers among you may also find Keefe’s interview with Longform, on his process of writing the book, illuminating; I did. I would also recommend this book he wrote: The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American DreamHe’s one of my favourite nonfiction writers.

Something I wrote recently

A dispatch from Kelantan, Malaysia: “This Land Is Our Land” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2019).

Soon, their inner rhythm takes hold. A man drops to the ground. He shudders and writhes, upending the bamboo floorboards, scattering his leaf whisk so violently it turns into confetti. Other men embrace him as if to absorb his energy, or perhaps to steady him; they anoint him with their bouquets. Then, he stops still; the exposed soles of his feet, turned up, look strangely vulnerable.

Soon to be liberated from the paywall. Get in touch if you’d like a discounted annual VQR subscription: USD$25 for 4 issues—I have a code for you!

Something from Instagram

Last year: A scarecrow in Kampung Nyegol, an indigenous village in Ulu Bengoh, a little way out of Kuching, Sarawak. Is it a cheeky jab at the strained bonds between peninsular Malaysia and the Bornean territories, which have been angling for more autonomy from their compatriots across the South China Sea? I liked to think so, and giggled when we walked past. But Jerome Simo, a young Bidayuh who was showing us around his village, strode past it without the slightest hint of a smirk, so…

Read about the trip, and tap through the full travelogue on my Instagram highlight: “Ulu Bengoh”.

This letter was made while listening to…

…cobbled together from overheard music to live gigs to word-of-mouth recommendations during my trip to Northern Ireland.

If you enjoyed this letter, please take a second to “heart” it down below, which I suspect will help get it onto Substack’s frontpage.

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Yours,
E.

www.emilyding.me
Facebook – Instagram – Twitter
Questions, thoughts, story/travel ideas
emydeewrites@gmail.com

The Mishmash Guide to Art and Life #3

On lighting little fires, Joan Didion's rules for self-respect, authentic endings, etc.

#2019fictionchallenge

I started this year with one of many resolutions: to read more fiction. Fiction was what I started reading as a child, but since university, I’ve been reading way more nonfiction and neglected fiction terribly. And I worry sometimes that I’m losing a little bit of the imagination and wonder that art gifts us:

[…] between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And—I would argue as well—all love.
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

I’ve only completed three books so far as part of the #2019fictionchallengeSuicide Club by Rachel Heng (grabs you right off the bat, but I think its very interesting premise overshadows its plot somewhat), Circe by Madeline Miller (thoughts here), and now, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.

This is Ng’s second novel and the first I’ve read of her work. It’s quietly, elegantly explosive, and has something of the fugitive about it—not entirely unlike, actually, The Goldfinch. And as with Circe, I finished it in one sitting over a weekend.

It goes like this: A single mother and her daughter move into Shaker Heights in suburban Ohio, where everyone knows to keep up appearances, where certainties about how to live are held with superior conviction. But Mia Warren and Pearl soon upend this careful order, incurring hostility from residents who have given up too much for the comfort of being respectable members of a community, while providing a way out for those who had always doubted their place here.

At heart, I see it as a story about how differing world views can put us at odds with the people we love; the loneliness of pursuing one’s own path, the courage to believe in it, and whether that’s a sacrifice worth making; and the regrets and what-ifs—or, perhaps, triumph—that might attend striking out on one’s own. Ng tilts discernibly toward one worldview more than the other, but for the most part, she reminds us to be have empathy for each person’s individuality and circumstance, and the choices that they make. The only thing I’ll say as a qualification is that the novel can feel a little didactic at times, particularly when its animating questions are explored via a courtroom battle over an adopted Chinese baby. But all in all, it’s propelling stuff.

An excerpt:

The girls he’d grown up with in Shaker—and the boys, too, for that matter—seemed so purposeful: they were so ambitious; they were so confident; they were so certain about everything. They were, he thought, a little like his sisters, and his mother: so convinced there was a right and a wrong to everything, so positive that they knew one from the other. Pearl was smarter than any of them, and yet she seemed comfortable with everything she didn’t know: she lingered comfortably in the grey spaces. […] Being with Pearl made the world feel bigger, even as being with him made Pearl feel more grounded, less abstract, more real.

And it’s probably a good idea to read it before Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington adapt it into a TV series.

Possible companion mood song?

and if my parents are crying
then I'll dig a tunnel from my window to yours

Also: “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)” and “The Suburbs”.

Life stranger than fiction, kindling thoughts, glimpses of horror and beauty

We’ll Always Have Paris: My Time in Texas with Sam Shepard’s Notebooks” (Lithub) by Madelaine Lucas

Crucially, the small town that gives Paris, Texas its name never actually features in it. It remains a place of longing, a barren plot of land that stands for that ever-elusive dream. Homecoming, the film seems to suggest, is like the parable about the man and the river—you can’t go home again, because, after a separation, it is never quite the same place because you are no longer the same person. It is here that the movie subverts the familiar trope of Westerns, where the return to the hearth and homestead offers peace, stability, comfort and above all, resolution—it is the curtain falling on the hero’s journey.

Shepard, for his part, resisted this kind of closure: “I hate endings,” he said in The Paris Review, “Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. […] The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”

What Tolkien Knew About Love” (NYT) by Jennifer Finney Boylan — I’m not sure that the comparison between Tolkien and Henry Darger is warranted or useful, but I love this passage:

Back in England after the fighting, Tolkien was walking through a forest with Edith one day. “We walked in a wood where hemlock was growing, a sea of white flowers.” Then Edith turned to him, and danced.

It was this vision of the woman he loved that inspired Tolkien’s tale of Beren, who returns from death to be with the woman he adores. “Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin,” that story begins, there are “yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures.”

In a remote refugee camp in Uganda, South Sudanese kids create their own entertainment from mud, paper, and plastic.” (Nat Geo) by Nina Strochlic and Nora Lorek

A 4-Year-Old Trapped in a Teenager’s Body” (The Cut) by Patrick Burleigh

I got my first pubic hair when I was 2 years old. I couldn’t talk, I could barely walk, but I started growing a bush. Or so they tell me. I have no recollection of a time before puberty, before the carnal cravings, the impulses, the angst and anger and violence. There was no prelapsarian age of innocence for me; I was born, I took a huge bite of the apple, and, by 2 years old, I was pretty much ready to get busy with Eve.

Inside Ivanka’s Dreamworld” (The Atlantic) by Elaina Plott

So I didn’t know how to explain this book on Burning Man, a gathering that seems to represent the opposite of everything I had come to know about Ivanka. When I told a longtime friend of Ivanka’s about the book, she laughed and said, “Really? Huh.”—unsure, too, of what to make of it. It could be that Ivanka’s secret self longs to escape her name and stop wearing sheath dresses and sway to EDM on hour three of an acid trip. It could be that Ivanka doesn’t want to do any of those things but wants you to think she does, because it would be unexpected and thus build intrigue. It could be that Ivanka simply received the book as a gift. But even then, her choice to display it would have been intentional, because Ivanka’s choices are only intentional. It could be none of these things. But when much of your life is a study in the art of projection, everything begins to feel like part of the project.

The Ghost of Capablanca“ (Southwest Magazine) by Brin-Jonathan Butler

While pawns are the most vulnerable piece on the chessboard, they are also the only piece capable of transforming into something entirely new, provided they make the perilous journey across the board. [..]

“We admire la lucha [‘the struggle’] as much on the chessboard as we do in the boxing ring. Our lives here have always been a struggle, and approaching that struggle with the courage of a boxer or the cunning and intelligence of a chess player is something that commands our respect. The same rules apply in a boxing ring or on the chessboard or growing up in our crazy system: resolver. Many places around the world are confronted with the same thing. They just don’t have our sense of style.”

Why Are Indonesians Being Erased from Indonesian Literature?” (Electric Literature) by Tiffany Tsao

Does this book travel well? This question is maddeningly familiar to those operating in international writing and publishing networks. The variations of this question include: Can this story cross cultures? Will readers be able to relate? Is there too much historical and cultural detail for the reader to process? Publishers don’t mean that they are looking for “un-foreign” foreign work. Rather, foreign work needs to be foreign in familiar ways—exotic enough to give the reader satisfaction about foraying into another country or culture without overwhelming or alienating them. It’s like crafting the perfect tourist experience. Unfamiliar yet comfortable. Orientalizing, not disorienting. This is why once a few authors from a particular country win over the English-speaking market, other authors may follow suit: their subject matter has become more known and therefore more palatable.

Something to tickle your funnybone

Three episodes into Netflix’s Our Planet, this is my favourite clip. I see now why people go bird-watching!

Some words to live by

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation—which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.

[…] people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent. […]

In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. […] Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs. […]

If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us.

Joan Didion
Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power

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Yours,
E.

www.emilyding.me
Facebook – Instagram – Twitter
Questions, thoughts, story/travel ideas
emydeewrites@gmail.com

Letter from Malaysia: The perils of certainty and the last room

Truth and justice, the death penalty, and how we see the world.

between our dreams and actions lies this world
—Bruce Springsteen

I think I’ve always felt the idea of injustice keenly. It probably had a lot to do with reading, during my pre-teen years, books like To Kill A Mockingbird and A Tale of Two Cities—my favourite novel by Dickens, who was a court reporter for several years. To be honest, I don’t remember much of it now (a re-read is in order), but I remember, somehow—a feeling like a memory of a memory—that it had something of a transformative impact when I finished it for the first time. Emerging from its pages in my family’s terrace house on a dead-end street in my sleepy Malaysian hometown, Ipoh, the world felt suddenly bigger, its depths suddenly visible to me.

During my primary school years I had also begun to love movies, and would creep out of my bedroom late at night to watch TV in the living room after my parents had gone to sleep. I frequented a mom-and-pop laser disc rental shop and judged movies by their cover sleeves, and in hindsight, I was surprisingly open to suggestion. Some of my favourite films were crime/courtroom dramas, like A Time to Kill (adapted from a John Grisham novel, ft. Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson) and A Few Good Men (who can forget Tom Cruise’s “I want the truth!” and Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!”). Later: Dead Man Walking (ft. Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon), which I found more unsettling; and 12 Angry Men, a black-and-white film from 1957, which introduced me to the idea of trial by jury. After we moved to Kuala Lumpur, I had access to a much larger bookshop, Kinokuniya, and picked up more books on the subject. Back then, online culture curation wasn’t what it is now, and Kinokuniya was my guide: just by randomly browsing its maze-like shelves, I chanced upon nonfiction reads like A Trial by Jury by D. Graham Burnett and The Juryman's Tale by Trevor Grove, which went some way in shaping my ideas on justice and reason and why diversity matters—an impartial jury only possible with a legit cross-section of the community and all that. It all made me wish I would one day be selected for jury duty too, until I realised that Malaysia had abolished it in the mid-nineties.

I think what captured my imagination about all these stories was the boiling cauldron of conflicting ideas you were invited to grapple with: guilt and innocence, denial and acceptance, damnation and redemption, life and death. Everything is at stake. It’s probably why I thought I wanted to be a lawyer; and I did read law at university, but my writerly side won out eventually. Turned out I wasn’t interested so much in practicing law, but more in the theory of justice and how it came into being (reading case judgements to see what I could learn from the judges’ reasoning process was an occasional past time), which goes hand in hand with the theory of truth, which of course has everything to do with journalism and documentary, and informs every aspect of how we see the world, how we make decisions, and how we live.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the possibility of untruth, and of the unknown. I think I think of myself, generally, as a gentle sceptic—in that I’ll hold something anyone tells me, very lightly, in a sort of state of suspension, until someone/something else either confirms or debunks it. Honestly, it gives me quite a bit of anxiety, this delicate business of determining the truth (I’m speaking, here, of something more nuanced than fact), especially when something neither debunks or confirms but remains just off-kilter, just disobliges to conform to what you already know: a puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. That’s when it gets tricky—though it can also get exciting, if you find something unexpected. And sometimes, it can feel downright existential.

By which I mean: I worry often about all the different sides to a truth, and how one tiny piece withheld or obscured or uncovered could change how one sees everything. It keeps me up at night every time I’ve turned over a piece to editors, makes me dream of my teeth falling out. I even dream about editors getting back to me pointing out all the ways in which I’ve erred, and then I’m re-writing the piece in my sleep, line by line—it’s very specific!—and then I’ve penned a whole piece and I wake up and I realise that none of it actually happened. Even months later, when a piece has long been published and no one has decried anything I wrote as myopic or inadequate or false, I’ll come across something that reminds me of the piece I wrote and I’ll feel the urge to double-check if everything in it still holds.

I’m grateful to one magazine editor for understanding this about me when I was a younger reporter, and how he chose to see it in the best light possible. Having submitted a feature which required detailed research and reporting, I made some changes days later so that my language would be more accurate in places, less susceptible to interpretations I never intended. This annoyed the deputy editor a little—understandable, since it was his responsibility to close the issue. But the editor pointed out, gently, that, hey, at least I was coming from a place of conscientiousness, and suggested that I build more time into my process going forward.

It’s a little obsessive, I know. After all, it’s just not realistic to cover the ground exhaustively on any subject at any one time, especially given limited time and scope when one is writing for work. Still, that doesn’t stop me from worrying that I haven’t done enough—of reporting, of fact-checking, of clarifying my language—even as I have to move on to other stories. Like that time I visited a block of low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur to find out its residents’ everyday concerns, and what they thought about the upcoming general elections and their constituency’s party candidates. That day, I managed to speak to eight families, and my main takeaway was: they’re telling people they’re going to vote for the incumbent government, when they’re actually planning to vote for the opposition. But wait, what if I were to speak to another five families, or another ten families? Would my takeaway change?

Then, there’s the dilemma, too, of differing fact interpretations. We can’t help but see the world through our own eyes, and we make judgements based on our own experiences. Give a bunch of people the same set of facts and they might all come to different insights about them. Like that time in the run-up to the general elections, when I was observing a political candidate at a walkabout, with a British media trainer shadowing me. At some point, he said to me, “Look at the man’s wife, her Louis Vuitton shoes. She’s not a simple woman. Maybe she wields some influence in his decisions.” And I thought, That could be true. Or she could just be a rich woman. Or it could have just been her best pair of shoes. We figure out what’s going on in any given situation by reading cues, but what if the way we’ve learned to read cues—predicated on what we’re told is human behaviour—isn’t always right?

Like another time, in Kolkata last year, when one of the Chinese uncles in the city’s old Chinatown told me, “You know, tourists go to the Sunday morning market with their cameras and they take photographs of the old Chinese women sitting on the street and they think they’re poor. But what they don’t know is that that these old Chinese women have children in Switzerland, Austria, Canada. They can leave and go abroad anytime they want to, but they like Kolkata, because life is good here if you have some money. So of course when these old ladies see their pictures online, posted on a blog or something, saying they’re poor, they don’t like it.”

Just this morning, I read this NiemanLab piece, “Fact-checking can’t do much when people’s ‘dueling facts’ are driven by values instead of knowledge:

Those who care about oppression look for oppression — so they find it.

Those who care about security look for threats to it — and they find them.

In other words, people do not end up with the same answers because they do not begin with the same questions. […]

Education is another possible means of encouraging consensus perceptions, but it can actually make things worse. Rather than training people how to think more reasonably, college and graduate school merely sharpen the lenses graduates use to perceive reality. In our data, those with higher levels of education are more, not less, divided. And the higher the level of training, the more tightly values and perceptions intertwine. Education provides the tools to more efficiently match their preferred values to their perceived facts.

Based on this evidence, we conclude that dueling fact perceptions (or what some have labeled “alternative facts”) are probably here to stay, and worsen.

None of this is reassuring.

In light of all this, I’m generally more prone to uncertainty than I am certainty. I’m more ready than not to doubt what I know, to question my assumptions and biases, when a new aspect of a thing reveals itself. I find it hard to commit absolutely to one perspective or another. I’m liable to always question myself, at the introduction of a newfound fact that shifts the ground, Wait, was I wrong? A friend told me recently that I should try writing op-eds, and everything I’ve just said is why I don’t think I could.

And I’m thinking about something a newsroom editor said to me a few years ago: “Emily, you’ve got to wear your heart on your sleeve!”

Such a great line, isn’t it? Sounds like love advice. But it had to do with a piece I was writing, and what I think he really meant was: All you can do is take a stand based on the facts that you’ve, under limited circumstances and limited time, found out; and if called upon, defend your ground based on what you’ve seen, and admit it when you’ve got it wrong. That’s all you can do, or you’d be too afraid to ever say anything worthwhile. And then what kind of writer would you be?

I think I’ve gotten better at this since, and I’ve become more ready to editorialise—albeit very subtly—in stories that aren’t straight news stories with my own insights, which I’ve learned to rely on with a little more confidence. I’ve also grown more comfortable with the idea that I won’t always get everything right for everyone, that none of us who work at documenting and portraying the world will always get it right for everyone; and I feel more ready to face criticism (even if unjustified), should it arise. The attempt to understand and tell people’s stories is always worthwhile, as long as we’ve made a reasonable reading of the facts and made an effort to understand them in context. You’ve got to believe that to do this work.

But I still dream about my teeth falling out.


I guess all of this is my roundabout way of saying that this is why I’m in favour of abolishing the death penalty: the possibility of making mistakes, at every stage of the legal process. Others who support abolition might emphasise the fact that death is not an effective deterrent to the commission of crimes; or that everyone, even those who commit murder, deserves a chance at redemption; or that, if we acknowledge that taking a life is wrong, it then follows that the state shouldn’t do the same.

[ 📷 For a recent story, I visited the family of a man on death row in Malaysia, whose lawyers have argued, to no avail, that one element of the crime of murder—the act itself—hasn’t been made out beyond all reasonable doubt, due to conflicting evidence on the identity of the victim. This is his wife, Gunalakshmi Karupaya, with one of her children. ]

I mostly agree with all that, but the most persuasive reason to abolish the death penalty, for me, is that no legal system is perfect. It’s not a matter of criticising or blaming anyone for not doing their jobs right; even if everyone were to act in good faith, there could still be mistakes. For instance: when assumptions are made in the face of inconclusive or conflicting evidence, assumptions the principles of law allows under certain circumstances. And if we accept that, how can we do the irrevocable?

On the flip side, some who argue in favour of the death penalty believe that an eye should be taken for an eye, that someone who takes a life forfeits their right to a life, that the only way to redemption is to surrender in kind. To be honest, I’m sympathetic to that view, especially when I think of the most heinous crimes like murder and rape, and especially when committed, in cold blood, against children. But then, the mere thought of the possibility of a wrongful conviction is enough to give me pause.

Given the inevitability of mistakes (to my mind, the only question would be how often they occur), I guess the question to answer is: Would you rather let a few murderous criminals live—in prison, for life—than sentence even one person to death for a crime he didn’t commit? Or would you rather let one innocent person hang for the surety of knowing that the most hardcore criminals get their just deserts?

It’s a question Malaysians are currently grappling with, since the announcement in October last year of a proposal to abolish the death penalty totally—a reform that has since been postponed and may be reduced to a partial abolition instead due to some vocal, high-profile opposition. In Malaysia, where death row is metaphorically called the “last room” (translated from the Malay language: bilik akhir), “wrongful convictions” doesn’t exist in our legal vocabulary. We don’t have a way to suss them out, unlike in other jurisdictions like the U.S., the U.K., Taiwan, and many others. I wrote more about this in that piece that’s waiting to be published, so I won’t go into it here. But I want to point you to some gut-wrenching stories of people in other countries who were convicted for murder and sentenced to death, having exhausted all appeals; and then later—posthumously, uselessly—found innocent. But what’s left to do but to clear their names?

Parents of wrongly-executed Chinese man say they wanted to live long enough just to clear son's name” (The Straits Times)

Executed Taiwan airman Chiang Kuo-ching innocent” (BBC)

Then there’s the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texan whose story is told in appalling and highly readable detail in “Trial by Fire” (New Yorker) by David Grann, one of my favourite nonfiction writers. Willingham was found guilty of killing his three young daughters by arson on his own home, and executed in 2004 when he was thirty-six years old. Unlike the other two cases, however, he was never exonerated, despite post-conviction findings pointing overwhelmingly to his innocence.

The crux of the mistake in Willingham’s case? The interpretation of evidence:

The jury was out for barely an hour before returning with a unanimous guilty verdict. As Vasquez put it, “The fire does not lie.”

No, the fire does not. But human knowledge does. There are always things we don’t yet know—and in this case, there were things arson investigators didn’t yet know about how fire works. Human knowledge, after all, is never complete, is constantly evolving. In his story, Grann lays out the brittleness of our deeply held certainties, and I recommend you read it before watching its adaptation for the big screen this year.

I’ll leave you with this from Benjamin Witts’s Atlantic piece “I Know Brett Kavanaugh, but I Wouldn’t Confirm Him”:

I […] am haunted by doubt, by the certainty of uncertainty and the consequent possibility of injustice. I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about Oliver Cromwell’s famous letter to the Church of Scotland in which he implored, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I also spent some time with Learned Hand’s similar maxim, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” We all need to think it possible that we may be mistaken; we all need to be not too sure that we are right.

Filmnotes & footnotes:

Some things I wrote recently

📷 The Remained (Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2019), reported from Kolkata, about cultural survival, contentious histories, and what makes a Chinatown in this modern age in light of the drastically dwindled numbers of Chinese in the city. You can also read it as a seven-part Instagram series at @vqreview. An excerpt:

Trevor Chen sits with his brother Stephen inside Sei Vui Club in Tiretti Bazaar, Kolkata’s old Chinatown. They’re waiting for the rest of the group to show up. They used to play gully cricket outside, Trevor says, when they had more friends. But now they’re down to just the handful of them, in their thirties and forties. “Almost all bachelors,” one of their friends would say later.

It’s the result of a slow journalism workshop I did last year, headed by Paul Salopek of the Out of Eden Walk project and sponsored by the National Geographic Society, mentored also by Prem Panicker, Arati Kumar-Rao, and Don Belt; I can’t thank them enough for their encouragement. And thanks to the VQR team, headed by Paul Reyes, for commissioning the piece in the first place so I could apply to the workshop, and giving it space in their eminent little magazine, which won the 2019 Ellie/U.S. National Magazine Award for General Excellence in Literature, Science, and Politics—a good reason to subscribe!

Also, a very nice message I received from one of the uncles of Kolkata Chinatown:

When I’m writing more deeply to understand a community as an outsider, I always get a little nervous when I show members of that community my finished article. The matter of identity can be a slippery, contradictory thing to grasp. What if they disagree with, or dislike, the way I see them? What if they think I’ve read into the “telling details” all wrong?

That’s not to say that one is necessarily always wrong. Sometimes, it’s just that we can feel uncomfortable with the way we’re seen—that line in Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher, “Nobody likes to be understood without warning” (I wrote a recommendation for Lit Books, my favourite local indie bookstore, sometime back)—and perhaps there could be truth on both sides. But as a writer, it’s still a relief when how you see people and how they see themselves dovetail for the most part.


📷 “Homing Pigeon” (Mekong Review, May/Jun 2019), a personal travel essay about how my interest in the idea of Chinatown began, from London to Guatemala City to Kolkata. It’s currently behind a paywall; so, subscribe or pick it up from these stockists in selected countries to read.

Maybe this is how it begins. Maybe you need to remind yourself of something familiar in order to give yourself over to the unknown.


📷 In Malaysia, one of the world's oldest rainforests awaits (CNN), about a two-day trip to the Royal Belum State Park in the Malaysian state of Perak—still relatively off the beaten track. See my Facebook photo album from that trip.

A slice of life from Instagram

Somewhere I was recently: Foraging for lunch with the indigenous Temuan community in Kampung Tohor, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia.

More at @emydeewrites

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Yours,
E.

www.emilyding.me
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