#3 Blurred lines of violence, loyalty, and love

What Game of Thrones has got to do with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Travelling and reporting in the Malaysian rainforest. (Plus: a love letter from another era.)

Welcome to Boots & Books: a newsletter for writers, readers, travellers, and curious hearts—hopefully sprinkled with a little grit, humour, and grace—about how we carry all the stories we've ever heard with us into the world, and how we make sense of it.

You can also read this letter on the web. All photos marked 📷 in the captions are mine.

A snapshot from the archive

[ 📷 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 see the full travelogue on my Instagram (@emydeewrites) highlight: “Ulu Bengoh. ]

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

The trouble with the Troubles

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 just 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 medieval cloaks and wielding fake swords, but didn’t want to be the spoilsport when everyone was 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”.


Soundbites from the archive

While we’re on the subject, a couple of bashful snippets on what the Troubles did to the pursuit of love, which turned up serendipitously in interviews 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?

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)

Something I wrote recently

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.

📷 From Kelantan, Malaysia: This Land Is Our Land” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2019). Soon to be liberated from the paywall.

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.

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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Until next time, catch up on past letters here.

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.

Yours,
E.

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

#2 The perils of certainty and the last room

On truth and justice. Lighting little fires. (Plus: the best birdy mating dance routine!)

Welcome to Boots & Books: a newsletter for writers, readers, travellers, and curious hearts—hopefully sprinkled with a little grit, humour, and grace—about how we carry all the stories we've ever heard with us into the world, and how we make sense of it.

You can also read this letter in your browser. All photos marked 📷 in the captions are mine.

Snapshot: somewhere I was recently

[ 📷 Foraging for lunch with the indigenous Temuan community in Kampung Tohor, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia. ]

I’ll admit that I was a tad overambitious when I thought I could do a weekly round-up—“Your Weekly Package”—while also writing the main dispatch of this newsletter. Actually, writing the former left me with less time to write the latter, and I’d really like to write more of the latter.

So I’ve decided to just stick to doing a monthly newsletter, as I’d originally planned. The idea is: you’ll get a mini “essay” (I’m using this word very loosely here) or a series of vignettes about writing, travel, art, and life, along with an eclectic pick of things I find interesting, inspiring, or funny. Beyond that, I want to keep the format loose, and maintain this as a space where I can experiment and try different things. All this probably means longer emails, which I hope won’t mean you’ll stop reading halfway. Star it and come back to it when you’re in a queue, or on the train, or—let’s be real—taking a nice, long dump.

Still not entirely sure what a personal newsletter is, or why so many writers are excited about it? Read this Buzzfeed piece, “Paid Email Newsletters Are Proving Themselves As A Meaningful Revenue Generator For Writers”, by Alex Kantrowitz.

Boots & Books is not a paid newsletter at the moment, but admittedly, I am tinkering with ideas for the future, and may add on dedicated missives for subscribers later on, should there be enough interest. It would be lovely—would certainly take off some of that pitching anxiety—to cater to a readership wholly my own, independent of the publications I write for. Sometimes, we writers just want to write what we want to write, without feeling like we need editorial permission. So tell me: What would you give me a monthly tip of, say USD$5, for? If you wouldn’t, no offence taken.

For fellow newsletter writers: here’s a good one on how to make email great again by Dan Oshinsky, the New Yorker’s Director of Newsletters.

Truth, justice, and the last room

between our dreams and actions lies this world

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?

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:

My #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: Suicide 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 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. The novel can feel a little didactic at times, especially when these questions are explored via a courtroom custody battle over an adopted Chinese baby, but I’d still recommend it. Ng also 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. 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”.

Selected stories 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.

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.

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

📷 “Homing Pigeon” (The 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.

📷 In Malaysia, one of the world's oldest rainforests awaits (CNN Travel), 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.

Life stranger than fiction, kindling thoughts, good lines, and glimpses of 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 BoylanI’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

If you enjoyed this letter, please take a second to “heart” it down below. I suspect it helps get letters onto Substack’s frontpage, and you’d be helping strangers discover Boots & Books.

If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter too, tell them to subscribe at emydeewrites.substack.com. A personal thumbs-up from you would really make my day!

Until next time, catch up on past letters here.

Yours,
E.

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

Your Weekly Package #2

Welcome to Boots & Books: a newsletter for writers, readers, travellers, and curious hearts—hopefully sprinkled with a little grit, humour, and grace—about how we carry all the stories we've ever heard with us into the world, and how we make sense of it.

Your Weekly Package is a side series: a mishmash of stuff that speak to me, separate from the main dispatch. (I cribbed the name from the curated hard drives of the Cuban cultural underground filled with pirated movies, books, music, etc. through which Cubans get their fix of the outside world, as told so evocatively in this Harper’s piece by the late Kim Wall.)

You can also read this letter in your browser and access the archive here.

Dear reader,

(There are exactly thirty-five of you, right now. Get more of your friends to subscribe so I have even more reason to write this? I’m incompetent when it comes to emotional blackmail and need others to do it for me, heh.)

You may or may not have noticed: I missed last week’s edition of Your Weekly Package, so this is a bit of a bumper. My head was in a bit of a state with some due deadlines, but hopefully, I won’t drop the ball on this too often. “The Fortnightly Package” doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? Perhaps on busy weeks, there’ll be less commentary forthcoming; just bullet-y points.

I’m writing this just before midnight. Strangely, social media is more of an introspective exercise for me, and more suited to the wee hours of the morning. So what better way to begin than with…

A late-night soundtrack to writing this late-night letter

Bring us the day they switch off the machines
'Cause men in yellow jackets putting adverts inside my dreams
An automated song and the whole world gone
Fallen under the spell of the distance between us when we communicate

This is a 2012 oldie but goodie. I wasn’t actually into Blur in the ‘90s, when they were the hottest in Britpop, but I became something of a devotee after listening to them more in my mid to late twenties, along with Gorillaz and Damon Albarn solo. I like the idea of later generations rediscovering things from decades past, like all the kids who must have found Queen with Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Random song association: Sharing this with a friend once, he told me how he and the guys would play football somewhere under the Westway in London. I always think of that now when I hear this.

On the state of modern cultural criticism

If you’re on social media at all, you’ve probably already read this Longreads piece by Soraya Roberts on cultural “flooding”: How we tend to focus on the same few things and elevate the same sorts of things—and I’m trying to be more aware of that in writing this newsletter too, though it helps that I’ve always had fairly eclectic, though still English-dominant :/—interests. Aside from some of the stuff that’s riding the zeitgeist (I’m guessing you’ve already read about that black holebut this: WTF?) I’ll try to highlight other things too that, hopefully, you won’t already have seen. Maybe it’ll open a new rabbit hole for you.

While we’re on the subject of cultural criticism, there’s a thought-provoking piece Harper’s recently published about what book reviews have become in the age of the algorithm. In “Like This or Die”, Christian Lorentzen pans what he calls the “consumerist mode of engagement with the arts”—so perilously close to fandom—and its emphasis on recommendation rather than critique (i.e. the subtle but important difference between “Does this book deserve coverage?” and “Does this book deserve to be reviewed?”) This approach, he argues, is wrongly premised on the idea that one should only engage with—because one only has the time to engage with—what they’re likely to enjoy or what other people are already paying attention to. Some passages:

Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush. In television, it takes the form of triumphalism: a junk medium has matured into respectability and its critics with it. In music, there is poptimism, a faith that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good. Film and art writing were corrupted so long ago by slavish fixations on the box office and the auction price that it’s now hard to imagine them otherwise. Literary journalism has been a holdout in this process of erosion: although literary blockbusters will tout that status when they achieve it, presence on the bestseller list has more often been seen as counter-­indicative of quality, the crossover as a happy freak. […]

The basic imperatives of the review—analysis and evaluation—are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them? […]

Once a critic has decided, or been assigned, to review a book, should any questions of attracting traffic figure into the work of analysis and evaluation? If they do, such concerns will inevitably push the reviewer to declare the book either a masterpiece or a travesty, or to point up its most sensational elements if there are any to speak of. A conscientious review admitting either to ambivalence or judgments in conflict with one another won’t travel as quickly on social media as an unqualified rave. As BuzzFeed books editor Arianna Rebolini put it to CJR’s Eichner, “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”

All this made me think of something the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott said in his book Better Living Through Criticism (I recommend it):

Q: So you can just look at anything? Criticize anything? The rug? The window? What’s outside it?
A: Well, yes and no. Anything can be judged, analyzed, investigated, made into a vessel of feeling, meaning, narrative, moral significance, beauty, and so on. But the question is whether the thing in question can bear the scrutiny, which is really to say whether the act of scrutinizing it can be made interesting.

Some critics say it’s not worth anybody’s time to do bad reviews, because why give coverage to something you wouldn’t recommend someone spend their time on?

But following on from what Scott said, I think of it like this: The question isn’t about whether or not to do a bad review; it’s about whether or not a bad review can be done interestingly. Like, is a work’s attempt at exploring an idea interesting despite its failure? Is it still something you can pick apart with nuance and offer something illuminating in the discussion?

Also, I disagree a little with Lorentzen in that I think there’s room for both coverage and critique. For me, both perform different functions. I could be equally into the, say, “Hottest Men in Literature” list as I am in the deep analysis of a book.

“Coverage”, for me, is how I find things to read, watch, and listen to—not necessarily because they are rated well, but because their premise sounds interesting. All I need is a description of the kinds of ideas it grapples with; a good rating or any awards won is a bonus. I think I’m always looking out for works of art that attempt to answer the questions I’m interested in, even if they never quite succeed in the attempt. If I think a work has even the slightest potential to do that, a bad rating won’t put me off.

“Critique”, I prefer to engage with after I’ve read, seen, or listened to something—I prefer to go into something without preconceived notions and make my own mind up about it instead of having a critic’s thoughts colour mine. Which is why the review, held back from discussing anything that could be construed as a spoiler, seems an inherently unsatisfactory form to me. Unlike “coverage”, I see “critique” as part of an extended conversation I can have in my head with great critical minds I’ll probably never meet. It’s a way to grapple with the works that strike me, more richly than I could on my own or with friends and family.

So I am, unequivocally, a believer in the importance of the cultural critic. At the same time, slavish adherence to reviews and ratings (no matter how respectable the person dishing them) is something of a pet peeve of mine. Like when someone asks for a recommendation and I give them one and they refer to IMDB or Goodreads or a particular review or whatever and tell me anyway that actually, it doesn’t sound so good, am I sure? What, have we completely dispensed with individuality?

While we’re in a letter, some real-life correspondence

I love letters, have always loved letters, and once loved somebody in part because he wrote beautiful letters. No surprises, then, that this California Sunday piece featuring the many shapes correspondence between two people can take—old fashioned missives, emails, texts, sketches—struck a chord.

My favourite? Snippets from letters spanning 1965 and 2019 between two women, who have been pen pals for over fifty years. I once had pen pals too, had a best pen pal even, from Singapore, during my primary school years—I procrastinated on studying for my exams for her; my mother wouldn’t give me her letters until I finished my homework. Sadly, none of them ever did stand the test of time.

Lucky Peach is back! Sort of.

The luminous, now sadly defunct food magazine’s co-founder and editor Peter Meehan is now heading a new Los Angeles Times standalone food sectionalso in print.

Random fact: Just before Lucky Peach announced they were shutting down a couple of years back, I was commissioned to write a day’s eating guide to Kuala Lumpur. I did, and was paid for it, but it was never published :(

Also, this is a very interesting profile on Patrick Soon-Shiong, the new South Africa-born Chinese owner of the Los Angeles Times—who first made his billions in healthcare, hence this analogy with journalism:

“I think fake news is truly the cancer of our time,” Soon-Shiong said to enthusiastic applause. “I’m just going to say it: Facebook and Google really are media companies that actually capture fake news into social media or a search element. So social media is a source of metastasis of fake news.”

(Thanks to Roads &Kingdoms’ latest newsletter—worth subscribing to—for the tip.)

Like the beginnings of a disaster movie…?

My cousin, who’s studying biochemistry (I think), has been warning me about drug-resistant bacteria for years now. Don’t use antibiotics if you don’t need it! Due to overuse, some bacteria have evolved to become immune to the antibiotics we already have, such that we might apparently go back to the bleak old days when even a cut, if infected, could kill you. But, wait, can’t they just create a new antibiotic? I ask. Yes, but it takes years, if not longer, to make one! She tells me that at a British medical conference she attended once, the military expressed particular worry about the potential of the problem. You could die of simple wounds on the battlefield!

Now, I’m no health expert, but I’m guessing my cousin knows something about this. Anyway, just check out this New York Times article (and the video) on Candida auris, a drug-resistant fungi adding to the fear of drug-resistant bacteria, and get worried:

Under her direction, hospital workers used a special device to spray aerosolized hydrogen peroxide around a room used for a patient with C. auris, the theory being that the vapor would scour each nook and cranny. They left the device going for a week. Then they put a “settle plate” in the middle of the room with a gel at the bottom that would serve as a place for any surviving microbes to grow, Dr. Rhodes said.

Only one organism grew back. C. auris. […]

A study the British government funded projects that if policies are not put in place to slow the rise of drug resistance, 10 million people could die worldwide of all such infections in 2050, eclipsing the eight million expected to die that year from cancer.

Just a really good longread

As you can tell from some of my writing—like this piece on Kolkata’s old Chinatown for the Virginia Quarterly Review—I’ve been interested for a while now in the lives of the Chinese diaspora, due in part to my own background. This recent Harper’s piece by Fae Myenne Ng about the “orphan bachelors” of San Francisco’s Chinatown, created by the Chinese Exclusion Act, is incredibly moving:

In our brief moment of childhood unity, Chinatown was a village with a hundred grandfathers, the remnants of Exclusion. I called out: Drink Whiskey Grandpa! Lame Leg Grandpa! Salty Grandpa! My father kept a wicker chair in our grocery store for any of them who wandered in.

The orphan bachelors shuffled along Dupont Avenue, our own Chinese-­American song of everlasting sorrow. They hung out on street corners, perched on hydrants, and leaned against lampposts. At Hang Ah Tea Parlor, when their bowls of plain congee arrived, they pulled out pink paper cones from their tattered jacket pockets and sprinkled tidbits of meat into their gruel. Without family, they tried their luck at the mah-­jongg hall; without wives, they sang love ballads in the underground music clubs and drank through the night at Red’s Place.

More photographs here of San Francisco Chinatown, 1896 to 1906, by Arnold Genthe.

What you should read about Brunei

Upon the news that Brunei has introduced sharia law nationwide (and the high-profile celebrity boycott of posh hotels with links to the nation’s sovereign wealth fund), there was some blowback to this South China Morning Post article. I think this Guardian piece by Kate Lamb treads some similar lines but is more fully contextualised.

This Malay Mail piece by Malaysian novelist Preeta Samarasan (Evening Is the Whole Day) also makes some good points—among which: “Moral standards should not depend on public opinion”—though I’d argue with the “fish in water, what’s water“ metaphor; I don’t think it’s necessarily true that those steeped in an illiberal system can’t appreciate its cruelties and that outsiders are better placed to speak up. But—and perhaps this is my law background speaking—I do agree that expecting people not to avail themselves of a draconian law, no matter how seemingly high the standard of proof, seems a fallacy:

Nothing, we are meant to believe, will really change in Brunei. Brunei is not Saudi Arabia; the Sultan has not killed anyone; these laws are nothing more than a bit of harmless sabre-rattling to maintain royal power at a time of falling oil revenues.

But to accept this defence is to believe that the letter of the law carries no weight whatsoever. If we recognise that the first step to protecting minorities is to put their rights on paper, then it follows that harsh laws on paper open the door to brutality in real life.

And, a thought: Might Brunei’s move not embolden other Muslim-majority countries in the region to do the same? The idea that one day, a leader in a country like, say, Malaysia might need to decide whether or not to walk the same balancing rope in order to retain power, doesn’t seem so impossible to me.

An irreverent Malaysian newsletter to subscribe to

There are three journalists behind the slyly named Between the Lines. One of them is Marc Lourdes, former director of CNN Digital Asia, whom I first met a long, long time ago while interning at The Star, a Malaysian daily, as a cub journalist.

Apparently, some people think the humour can be a little distracting, but I like it. I don’t necessarily want my newsletters on current affairs to sound like the news. We read different things for different reasons. I don’t read this newsletter for a strictly objective account; I read it for how I imagine seasoned journos—who still have some sense of humour left—might be talking about the latest absurdities that make up the Malaysian news cycle while they’re gathered at a mamak or a street corner or something.

Also, the quote insert that comes with every edition, often borrowed from a distant context, is a refreshing touch.

Oh Heathers

Such is the world that, even in Malaysia, I grew up on American ‘90s teen staples like Clueless, She’s All That, Cruel Intentions, and Beverly Hills 90210 (R.I.P. Luke Perry/Dylan McKay). But I only started watching ‘80s teen movies and noticing homage references to John Hughes in contemporary teen films when I was in my mid to late twenties. And I only watched Heathers, a blackly comedic high-school satire from 1988—which was on my to-watch queue—a few months ago. Seen through the lens of today, it’s just deliciously wacky, and Winona Ryder’s weird-cool in it. Counting on your nostalgia, teen movies never go out of style, I don’t think, no matter how old you get.

The New Yorker looks back on the film in its interactive, beautifully designed Touchstones series, which revisits works of culture that have made an impact.

There’s also a retrospective on Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind.

I’m curious: What’s the first ever teen movie you remember watching? Mine was the 1993 movie Airborne. I discovered it with my childhood best friend in the laser-disc rental store owned by this Chinese auntie and uncle in Ipoh, my hometown, and we watched it over and over from inside a pretend tent we made in my family’s living room whenever she stayed over. Whether or not it’s actually good is not the point here.

Some words to live by

Ending on a heartwarming note, here’s Siberian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva—her work is, in one word, magical (please, please, please just look at this)—on the importance of holding on to the child within you, even as you grow older:

More and more, I was coming back to the memories of my childhood. I felt, almost physically, how I was losing this childish awe. It was just a little bit of this left in me, and I felt like it was shrinking, shrinking, shrinking day by day, and I needed to photograph it while it was still there—a little bit, at least. [...] When it was over, I felt that I lost something. Because I'm not going to be like this, ever again.

(Thanks Arati Kumar-Rao for sharing this.)

Until the next one, catch up on past letters here.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter and think your friends would too, let them know to subscribe at emydeewrites.substack.com. A personal thumbs-up from you would really make my day!

Yours,
E.

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

Your Weekly Package #1

Welcome to Boots & Books: a newsletter for writers, readers, travellers, and curious hearts—hopefully sprinkled with a little grit, humour, and grace—about how we carry all the stories we've ever heard with us into the world, and how we make sense of it.

Your Weekly Package is a side series: a mishmash of stuff that speak to me, separate from the main dispatch. (I cribbed the name from the curated hard drives of the Cuban cultural underground filled with pirated movies, books, music, etc. through which Cubans get their fix of the outside world, as told so evocatively in this Harper’s piece by the late, and very inspiring, Kim Wall, who was tragically murdered while on assignment in Denmark in 2017.)

You can also read this letter in your browser and access the archive here.

A song I’m stuck on by a band that’s possibly growing on me

Which I came across while watching the first episode—campily funny, charmingly offbeat—of Jordan Peele’s six-part Youtube series Weird City.

It’s from Leopold and His Fiction’s 2017 album Darling Destroyer.

I’m also hooked on “Saturday”.

Something mortifyingly funny + true of our modern condition

This longform piece from the New Yorker, “Outdoor Voices Blurs the Lines Between Working Out and Everything Else”, about athleisure fashion taking over cities and how it commodifies women’s bodies in concert with Instagram. (For those not based in the U.S. who are unfamiliar with Outdoor Voices, or OV—tagline: the oxymoronic “Technical Apparel for Recreation”—just substitute it with Lulu Lemon.)

Jia Tolentino writes with tongue firmly in cheek for most of the piece, but reaches for a more conciliatory tone at the end by implicating herself—just marginally, haha. This was such a pleasure to read because it reminds me of George Saunders’ dystopian short fiction, except it’s real. I giggled in a few places. E.g.

When I got home from my shopping spree, I tried on my Super Bloom-colored leggings and bra top. “Doing things is better than not doing things,” I told my boyfriend, who was still in bed after a week of thirteen-hour workdays at an architecture firm. “You look like a mommy blogger dressed as the Easter Bunny,” he said.

Tolentino draws upon an earlier article, “Pajama Rich”, by Moira Weigel—also interesting and worth reading, especially about the evolution of athleisure in comparison to denim jeans. And this:

As the Lululemons symbolize aspiration, the spandex enforces the discipline needed to achieve it. Offering convenience, the pants also nag us to exercise. Self-exposure and self-policing meet in a feedback loop. Because these pants only “work” on a certain kind of body, wearing them reminds you to go out and get that body. They encourage you to produce yourself as the body that they ideally display.

I think I just might write about my fraught relationship with exercise (and my overused pair of spanx-y Lulu Lemon tights) sometime. And no, I have not embraced the athleisure trend.

The women of Free Solo

Yes, you should watch Free Solo, which won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. I was completely affected by it.

It’s not just a rock climbing film. It speaks to universal desires, and asks primal and profound questions about life and death. I’m intrigued by Alex Honnold the same way I was intrigued by Ayrton Senna after watching Senna—in large part because of their uncompromising single-mindedness. Which is why I started reading The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life. (A few people have asked that I share my thoughts on it when I’m done. Will do.)

In the meantime, turn your attention to the woman who co-directed the film—and my latest journo girlcrush. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi was making award-winning documentaries even before Meru and Free Solo (I’ll be checking out all of them!) and you should read this Outside feature on her. More here on how she and her husband, Jimmy Chin (the climber-photographer-filmmaker you’ve probably heard of), brought their respective talents to bear on the film.

Sanni McCandless, a life coach for “intentional living” and founder of the Outwild festival—also Alex Honnold’s admirably self-possessed girlfriend in the face of his possible death and his suckerpunch bluntness when asked how he felt about their relationship (to be fair, he said they were still in their early days at the time, and he was weighing it against a dream he’d held for most of his adult life)—keeps a blog. This post and this post may be of particular interest as far as they relate to the film.

For an interesting glimpse of what went on behind the scenes of Free Solo:

I still think about this: Would they have continued to make a film if Honnold had fallen and died? What kind of film would that have been? What sort of answers would that film have provided to the primal and profound questions about life and death?

A book you can chew on

A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, about why we believe what we believe, and how that’s changed over time, from ancient to modern times. I picked it up because I was looking for something about the beginnings and evolution of the human act of storytelling—mythmaking, in other words. Not “myth” in the sense of “fake”; Armstrong attempts to reclaim the word here.

The book could be read in the context of being an introduction to the Canongate Myths series of novellas that retell old myths, which includes Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Jeanette Winterson’s Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles. The book could also be read in the context of Armstrong having written a long list of books on religion (none of which I have read yet; I plan to get to A History of God soon), and much of it deals with belief in the divine and the spiritual.

It deserves a more extensive discussion, but for now, this:

In our scientific culture, we often have rather simplistic notions of the divine. In the ancient world, the ‘gods’ were rarely regarded as supernatural beings with discrete personalities, living a totally separate metaphysical existence. […] When people spoke of the divine, they were usually talking about an aspect of the mundane. The very existence of the gods was inseparable from that of a storm, a sea, a river, or from those powerful human emotions—love, rage or sexual passion—that seemed momentarily to lift men and women onto a different plane of existence so that they saw the world with new eyes.

Mythology was therefore designed to help us to cope with the problematic human predicament. […] We all want to know where we came from, but because our earliest beginnings are lost in the mists of prehistory, we have created myths about our forefathers that are not historical but help to explain current attitudes about our environment, neighbours and customs. We also want to know where we are going, so we have devised stories that speak of a posthumous existence […] And we want to explain those sublime moments, when we seem to be transported beyond our ordinary concerns. The gods helped to explain the experience of transcendence. […]

It is, therefore, a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human brings have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’—a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology. […] ‘What if this world were not all there is? How would this affect our lives—psychologically, practically, or socially? Would we become different? More complete? And, if we did find that we were so transformed, would that not show that our mythical belief was true in some way, that it was telling us something important about our humanity, even though we could not prove this rationally?

I’m not a religious person, and I’m not an atheist. As a child, filling out official forms in Malaysia that mandated information on one’s religious beliefs, my mother always said, “Just put ‘freethinker’”—whatever that meant.

Not to oversimplify it, but I think my biggest obstacle to religion has always been that I found it difficult, precisely as Armstrong said, to think about God/gods as “supernatural beings with discrete personalities”. So the way she writes about myth here, and about religion as one kind of myth, makes sense to me—makes people’s need for religion understandable. As she told NPR, myth is “the history of the human psyche”, of “how we try to make sense of our puzzling and beautiful world”.

Some words to live by

On aspiration, self-actualisation, and friendship:

When we’re aspiring, inarticulateness isn’t a sign of unreasonableness or incapacity. In fact, the opposite may be true. [...] If we couldn’t aspire to changes that we struggle to describe, we’d be trapped within the ideas that we already have. Our inability to explain our reasons is a measure of how far we wish to travel. It’s only after an aspirant has reached her destination, [Agnes] Callard writes, that “she will say, ‘This was why.’”
Joshua Rothman, “The Art of Decision Making” [#]

It is important to clarify here that the ideal self is not a counterpoint to the real self in the sense of being inauthentic. Unlike the seeming self, which springs from our impulse for self-display and which serves as a kind of deliberate mask, the ideal self arises from our authentic values and ideals. Although it represents an aspirational personhood, who we wish to be is invariably part of who we are—even if we aren’t always able to enact those ideals. In this sense, the gap between the ideal self and the real self is not one of insincerity but of human fallibility. The friend is one who embraces both and has generous patience for the rift between the two. A true friend holds us lovingly accountable to our own ideals, but is also able to forgive, over and over, the ways in which we fall short of them and can assure us that we are more than our stumbles, that we are shaped by them but not defined by them, that we will survive them with our personhood and the friendship intact.
Maria Popova, “Reclaiming Friendship: A Visual Taxonomy of Platonic Relationships to Counter the Commodification of the Word ‘Friend’” [#]

You can catch up on past letters here.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter and think your friends would too, let them know to subscribe at emydeewrites.substack.com. A personal thumbs-up from you would really make my day!

Till the next one,
E.

www.emilyding.me
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#1 Your Woman in Kolkata

Reporting from the City of Joy. Encounters with the Chinese Indian community. (Plus: Kate Beckinsale's genius pranking skills!)

Welcome to Boots & Books: a newsletter for writers, readers, travellers, and curious hearts—hopefully sprinkled with a little grit, humour, and grace—about how we carry all the stories we've ever heard with us into the world, and how we make sense of it.

You can also read this letter in your browser. All photos and videos in this letter are mine.

I’ve been thinking of getting started on this ever since it became a thing with Tinyletter, especially for writers. But honestly, what held me back was the idea that what I wrote might reside forever in someone else’s inbox—that I couldn’t just go back and hit the Edit button if it made me a cringe at a later date.

So I procrastinated, and procrastinated, until Substack came along. I think I capitulated to Substack because of the clean and easy Medium-like writing interface. And because Tinyletter’s future seems uncertain after Mailchimp bought it. And because Substack, like Tinyletter, keeps things much simpler than Mailchimp and is typographically better looking than Tinyletter. Some people are using Patreon, which offers more flexibility in terms of subscription permutations. But unlike Substack, which also allows subscriber-only posts, it doesn’t feel like a dedicated writing tool.

I won’t lie: the prospects Substack offers for monetising select posts and hosting a podcast in tandem is also enticing, though I’m not likely to do either for a while as I want to concentrate on pitching and writing. But it would mean the world to me to get to a point, eventually, where I’m able to rally a faithful, personal readership around the things I’m interested in exploring. So stick around, won’t you?

Why Kolkata was something special for me

When I received confirmation in November last year that my application had made it through the selection for a slow journalism workshop in Kolkata sponsored by the National Geographic Society and led by Paul Salopek of the Out of Eden Walk project—an estimated ten-year journey on foot to retrace our human ancestors’ migration out of Africa during the Stone Age—it felt like I was about to come full circle. Well, one of life’s many little circles.

Because back in 2012, I was supposed to have spent six months in Kolkata to report on criminal justice in the West Bengal region for a global NGO. I remember how excited I was to be paired with a photographer a few years older than me, who I’d thought was just so cool because she had photographed bears in the wild. And I’d made contact with the criminal lawyer I was supposed to shadow, and was excited to get to work, to throw myself into the deep end. I poured over travel guides and blogs, and fantasised about making a temporary home of a hostel room I’d found—it was a little worse for wear, but I chose to imagine it as poetically ascetic. I imagined hanging out with other aspiring journalists on the dingy rooftop of the faded building under the night sky, made warm with the camaraderie of like-minded people. It would have been my first real experience of international reporting, but it didn’t happen.

Just before I was supposed to leave for Kolkata, I fell ill. I was running a recurring high fever, and the lymph nodes on my neck became swollen. I did tests; and the doctor woke me up one morning with a phone call and told me that he was worried I might have lymphoma(!) and that I would have to do more tests. The doctor said it was best I didn’t go to India, and the NGO couldn’t wait. Beth needed a partner. The works goes on. Another journalist took my place. And I put Kolkata behind me.

Luckily, in the end, it wasn’t lymphoma. And it wasn’t something a short course of steroids couldn’t fix. But I’ve always wondered, in passing, about how the trajectory of my life might have been different in even the subtlest way had I spent those six months in Kolkata, then—which isn’t to say that things haven’t turned out alright.

Still, it seems apt that the next time—the first time—I went to India, it was to Kolkata, and on a reporting trip. I was determined to apply for the workshop, having followed Paul Salopek’s journey since he started, even though I’d only found out about it a few days before the deadline and hadn’t yet secured a story commission that was the prerequisite for acceptance.

Luckily, in the end, everything fell into place. And then I was there.

And one day, I found another rooftop for breezy—albeit polluted—afternoons.

Notes on seeing

As with most workshops where you’re tasked with producing a story by the end of it, this one was short but fairly exhausting: the waking up at 6 a.m. to catch the best light for photography, pounding the pavements till 7 p.m., then writing up drafts till 3 a.m. and getting just a few hours of shut-eye before doing it over again. But I appreciated how intense and single-minded it was. It felt liberating, for a little while, not to have to think about any other stories at the same time. This was all I had to focus on.

[One of my many workstations while in Kolkata. I jumped around different guesthouses. It was a pain unpacking and repacking my backpack so often, and lugging it around, but I like getting the feel of different neighbourhoods.]

The workshop’s four mentors—Paul Salopek, Don Belt, Prem Panicker, and Arati Kumar-Rao—were all encouraging and approachable, and working alongside a group of like-minded fellow journalists was very reassuring. I think I’ll definitely look back on this experience, though short, as having been defining in some way.

For one, it’s deepened my resolve to pursue the deep-dive stories I want to pursue in a world that revolves around blaring headlines and sound bites, particularly in Malaysia. Such a pursuit feels more validated now, simply because these people I admire are doing it too. And I was encouraged by the feedback and advice, which you don’t often get freelancing. This was a good opportunity to take stock of how I’ve been doing.

[That’s me with “helmet hair” in Kolkata. Thanks Vangmayi for the photo!]

[Photograph of the whole Out of Eden Walk Kolkata crew by Nantha Kishore.]

Here are some of my takeaways from the workshop—in words paraphrased from the mentors, mixed in with my own notes:

  1. Slow journalism is not inefficient journalism. Streamlining processes—like taking solid field notes so you don’t need to spend too much time transcribing after—matter. This workshop, though a slow journalism workshop, has showed me how much can be done towards a longform piece in even just two days on the ground, and that has been confidence-boosting. Slow journalism isn’t necessarily slow, but is perhaps more an immersive approach to reporting. It’s observing a place and its people deeply—if possible, over a period of time. To paraphrase: Fast journalism is about information; slow journalism is about meaning.

  2. Don’t give the art of storytelling too much power. The word “story” is used too indiscriminately these days—even in marketing speak! Don’t make it out to be too magical. It’s not mystical; it’s sweat and blood.

  3. Make sure the connections you make in your story aren’t contrived. Readers are smart. They can see when you’re stretching it.

  4. Besides just asking questions, set some time out just to sit and observe. How do your subjects interact with the world? How does the world treat them?

  5. In finding stories, pay attention to what you find most compelling. When something moves you, there’s a good chance there’s something there.

  6. There’s value in telling the stories of people who don’t make the news, of people who make societies work. If there are places that seem silent to you, it’s not because nothing’s happening. It’s because no one’s listening. This reminds me of a passage from Barbarian Days, a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir about surfing for even non-surfers by one of my favourite writers, William Finnegan:

  7. A professional journalist should practice military precision when it comes to submissions and deadlines and all that—as Captain L.K. Mann, one of Paul’s guides through rural India and ex-soldier of the Indian Army, showed all of us!

  8. You can use literary techniques to tell true stories, all without making stuff up.

  9. Don’t just report intellectually. Use all your senses. Inhabit the landscape with your body. What did the place feel like on your skin?

  10. Allow for serendipity. Sometimes you can be so laser-focused on looking for what you’re looking for that you miss other things. Be alert to what’s happening in real time. Don’t think so much about the final destination.

  11. A writer’s identity is inescapable while reporting. And every writer will come to a story differently. The best you can do is be honest about who you are.

  12. When interviewing your subjects, let them dictate the energy. Let them lead you.

  13. When someone needs to think about a question you ask them, that’s a good sign. Something that spills out of someone’s mouth may not be very valuable.

  14. If you’re asking hard questions in an interview, do it in the middle. You want to end on a good note, so that the door is open for you to come back to your subject.

  15. Trace things back to their origins. People, too. Everyone has an origin story.

  16. In your observations for a story, think about whether there are any quiet moments that say something about the human condition.

  17. It might be useful to think about your editor as being blind. How do you tell a story to make them see? Don’t tell them it’s raining. Make them feel drenched.

  18. There are some stories that you might choose to withhold, even if the story has the potential to change the world, because of the trust your subject has put in you. Basically, just be a decent human being. It may be that not all stories are yours to tell.

  19. Write cinematically. There’s plenty to learn about good storytelling from the movies. Screenings during the workshop included scenes from Wong Kar Wai’s films and The Godfather.

  20. Being a writer just means being someone who writes, writes, writes.

All that aside, what I appreciated most about the workshop is how it offered ways of thinking and being that were both practical and poetic, putting the “literary” in journalism—which is exactly what I’ve wanted to do ever since I read Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”. Yes, there’s room for art in journalism!

There’s so much to do going forward, and I’m excited to get to all of it.

[One of Arati Kumar-Rao’s teaching slides from the workshop. Recently, she received a National Geographic Explorer grant to continue the work she’s done independently for years: documenting forced human migration in India caused by climate change.]

Hanging out with the Chinese Indians of Kolkata

I spent about a full week pounding the pavements in Kolkata’s two Chinatowns—the original one in Tiretti Bazaar, and the other one in Tangra—to draw out a story about cultural survival through diversity, contentious histories, and what makes a Chinatown in this modern age in light of the drastically dwindled numbers of Chinese in the city. I made calls, wandered the streets, dropped in on the places where people socialise, and wrangled—unobtrusively, I hope—invitations to people’s homes.

I had been told that the Chinese community in India (well, anywhere actually) can be a closed community, that they generally like to keep themselves to themselves—you don’t ask me questions and I won’t ask you questions, that kind of thing—and that it might be difficult to get access for a story. I did encounter some of that, but mostly, I think being Chinese myself helped in that regard. Some declined to speak with me, but people were generally welcoming of a curious stranger. I think some were probably curious about my curiosity, which always helps. And once people see you return day after day, they tend to relent. You’re not just doing a touch-and-go.

I’m grateful to the many people I’ve met for their hospitality, for letting a stranger poke into their daily lives to better understand a story, and occasionally, for letting me in, so frankly, on the intimate details of their inner worlds—their love lives, even. I grew up on novels and I love the idea of writing fiction, and I’m dabbling in it in my own time, but there’s nothing quite so rewarding as writing nonfiction, and this is why. You get to see the world through so many people’s eyes.

Thanks to all the families who invited me into their home, and everyone who was willing just to take the time out to chat, and to help pave my way to more people I could speak to. I feel like I’ve seen so many different aspects of Kolkata just by following this one community: from the city centre, to the tanneries in Tangra, to the spruced-up neighbourhoods in the northeast like Salt Lake City (apparently so named because it used to a be a salt marsh, though I’m sure its American connotations aren’t lost on anyone), known for its prevalence of software companies—and where there’s even a “Big Ben”, I kid you not.

Not everyone I’ve met nor everything I’ve seen and heard will make it into my story, but I’m grateful for all of it. My piece will be published in the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Spring 2019 issue, and I’ll send out an update once it’s online.

Memorable encounters with language

Exhibit 1 —

[Rangan Datta and John Wu at Sea Ip Club in Tiretti Bazaar.]

What many Chinese Indians said to me: “Wait, you don’t speak Cantonese? But you’re from Malaysia! Aren’t most of the Chinese there Cantonese?”

Most Chinese Indians here speak English, but I’ve found myself in the funny situation of not being able to communicate with some of the older-generation Chinese here who don’t speak English, nor Mandarin, which I’m passably fluent in. Almost all Chinese here, however, speak fluent Hindi, even to each other in all-Chinese social settings; they tend only to use Chinese dialects at home with family. So, while speaking to John Wu here at Sea Ip, one of the five remaining Chinese social clubs, I asked Rangan Datta, a local blogger who has visited the community often, to play translator for us.

I’ve got a thirty-minute audio recording of John Wu talking, and admittedly I don’t know the language, but his speech sounds like music to me.

Exhibit 2 —

As with any contentious period of history, you get people want to keep talking about it, and people who think the past is best left in the past. The former camp thinks you should talk about it so future generations don’t make the same mistakes, while the latter camp thinks talking about it only resurrects old feuds and bitter memories. I think they’re both right. History can be wielded as a deterrent, or a weapon.

I spoke to some of the Chinese in Kolkata about the 1962 border war between India and China, which was responsible for an exodus from their community, with only about 2,000 of them left now when they once numbered in the tens of thousands. Lawrence Ho was eight years old when the war broke out, and he was sent along with his family to a desert camp in Rajasthan. He was reticent about the subject, and though he shared with me some details about the experience, he also asked me to stop recording a portion of our conversation. Someone also recited a Hindi proverb; translated, it says: If you’re swimming in the river, don’t disturb the crocodile.

So, don’t stir up a hornet’s nest. 

Or, as my parents might say in English—translated literally from my father’s Foochow dialect—to my eighteen-year-old cousin John, for instance, when he went off to Wisconsin for university:

"Oi, don’t go sticking a worm up your arsehole.”

Yes, that’s apparently an actual Foochow saying!

Exhibit 3 —

Some quirky turns of phrases I learnt while interviewing some Chinese Indians:

  • “When they want to freak around, they will go out with their friends. There’s nothing for them to do here,” says Michael Ho about his children.
    I think this was more an individual quirk that something people say with any frequency. But I love it!

  • Lawrence Ho puts it another way: “They like to chill their life, you know? That’s what they call it. Chill their life.”
    Definitely add the chuckle you’re imagining.

  • Michael Chen, a mixed Indian Chinese, tells me about his home life: “We are more Chinese than Indian at home. Chinese, Chinese, maximum Chinese! Whatever food we cook here, all maximum Chinese!”
    Seems to be used as a substitute for “most”/“mostly” quite a bit.

  • “My daddy expired.”
    As in, passed away. Mostly, I hear this from the older generation.

  • “When I passed out of school…”
    As in, graduate.

A spin around Tangra

There are many different ways to see a city. Once, in Kolkata, from the back of a motorbike, hoping any cars slicing too close wouldn’t take my leg off.

Here’s a vignette of random footage I recorded. This is Christopher Chang, a 38-year-old dentist, who lives and works near Tangra—an area west of the city built on marshland known as “the other Chinatown” by virtue of the Chinese-owned tanneries that once dominated the area. I met him through other Chinese I met in Tiretti Bazaar, and he was nice enough to take me around Tangra on his morning off.

Christopher is a third-generation Chinese of Hubei origin. In India, perhaps because of the longevity of the caste system, sons still do the work of their fathers and grandfathers—and most Hubeinese are dentists.

“Well, it’s easier, isn’t it?” he said, while we sat in the waiting room of an upstairs office selling dental supplies after taking a spin around Tangra. He was looking for a new supplier after a dispute with his regular one, who hadn’t appreciated being told there was something wrong with his equipment in front of his other clients.

“Everything’s established already, and you don’t have to start over. I’ve inherited all my father’s clients.”

In Tangra, I also dropped by the office of the Overseas Chinese Commerce of India, which was hard to find—tucked deep in a building without signs on the outside to call out to you, next to a graveyard. Founded in 1969, it’s one of the last Chinese papers left in Kolkata. It’s just a few pages long, and boasts a readership of only about 200 people. It contains some news, and announcements of births, deaths, marriages, and the like.

There’s some misinformation online that tells you the editor, K.T. Chang, still handwrites the paper. In fact, he has it printed out from a computer, like anyone else—but he prints out individual articles, which he then lays out manually into a broadsheet, using a short blade, a ruler, cellophane tape, and paperweights, before photocopying it for distribution. When I intruded, his focus never wavered even as we spoke. He had a glass of yellow whisky at hand.

Tangra didn’t make it into my story in the end, but I hadn’t really intended it to from the outset, which meant that I explored it in more chill fashion, and wasn’t so worried about reporting efficiently. Before I left, I walked into a Buddhist temple to say hello to a nun that Christopher had mentioned was his sifu. She would be good to talk to, he had said. We ended up talking for a good hour or so, and she ended up inviting me upstairs to lunch with her students and a visiting nun from Taiwan.

Truth is, I find it hard to be an “efficient” reporter. When you’re entering a community to understand it, sometimes, if you’re lucky, people will want to point you on to other people, and they will want to show you something, which sometimes has nothing to do with what you came looking for—and you need to develop a hunch on whether something might be in service of your story, or perhaps a different story, and also be okay with rejecting people’s hospitality when you really need to stay on track.

Several years back, when I was working a stint at an online news website, the editor afforded me a great opportunity to have a veteran British journalist and media trainer shadow me for a few days while I worked. The trainer kept his distance, so as not to interfere with my reporting or make interviewees uncomfortable, and the idea was that he would observe me and give me feedback after on things I could improve on.

In the end, I remember he told me that I was doing most things right, but one thing he would say was that I spent too long talking to people. (I believe he was referring specifically to an afternoon I spent doing vox pop interviews in Kampung Baru, a Malay neighbourhood in the Kuala Lumpur city centre, when I walked into a shop and started asking questions and someone asked me to sit down and have kopi and chat, and that’s exactly what I did, while the trainer was thirty or so metres away, stealthily evaluating my skills, haha.) He said that as someone who had spent most of his career reporting news for TV, he would go into a story knowing exactly how many quotes he needed and from whom—two here, two there; get in, get out.

I did learn to do that soon enough, but it’s no surprise that I’ve gravitated towards longform writing. Still, in terms of the nuts and bolts of shoe-leather reporting, no experience has been so formative as the months I spent covering breaking political news in the run-up to the thirteenth Malaysian general election.

Something to tickle your funnybone

Here’s an old goodie. Who knew Kate Beckinsale was so hilarious? She’s not terribly interesting when she plays the conventional love interest (I’m thinking about Pearl Harbour), but she was great in Love and Friendship, and I’d love to see her in a proper laugh-out-loud comedy!

Someone else to read

As I begin this newsletter, I’d recommend that you also subscribe to Griefbacon by the essayist Helena Fitzgerald, who, from the sounds of it, made her name on her Tinyletter (she’s since moved to Substack), which let her quit her day job to be a full-time writer. I first read her from her Catapult series, Arrivals and Departures:

During a year when I didn’t once leave the city where I live and returned every day to the previous day’s choices, I met my partner, Thomas. In the first year we were together, he went to the doctor again and again, sure he was dying at every tiny thing that might have been wrong. He’d never been particularly worried about his health before, he explained, but being this happy and this much in love had made the world seem unbearably dangerous, had made him feel that something must be coming for him, the next shoe must be about to drop, there must be consequences for all of this joy, for all of this unaccountable good fortune. My version of the same reaction is that I became terrified of airplanes and everything else with the built-in possibility of tragedy. [#]

And that’s one long-ass letter from me. It won’t always be this long.

If you enjoyed this letter, please take a second to “heart” it down below. I suspect it helps get letters onto Substack’s frontpage, and you’d be helping strangers discover Boots & Books.

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Until next time, catch up on past letters here.

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