Vol. 4, Letter from the overnight train from Munich to Berlin

On slow travelling, being alone in unfamiliar places, and talking (or not talking) to strangers.

You can also read this letter online at bit.ly/emydeewritesletter4
Throwback: Wending through the Tabernas Desert in Almeria, south of Spain.

It’s possible that it’s the getting somewhere I anticipate the most. That may explain why I tend to make as much of the journey as possible, draw it out so that it unfurls more momentously towards its destination, especially after I’ve been stationary for a while—as long as practical considerations allow, like when it isn’t a lot more expensive to take the train than to fly.

It’s not that I don’t like flying; in fact, a period of absence from airports makes me quite fond of them. Being sucked into one and spat out another—transported with relative immediacy to different sights, sounds, and smells—jolts you into reorienting yourself and recalibrating your perspective, even if initially only in the most literal of ways. Generally, though, I prefer watching landscapes undulate past me on trains, buses, and boats that I can board directly with minimal fuss: no check-ins, no worrying about losing my luggage, no having to separate liquids and electronics for security scans. I figure the extra hours added to the extended journey equal the hours of procedural tedium at airports anyway; and they feel earned, somehow, as if I’ve bought myself more time in a day to read and write and just sit and think. And in the time of climate change, going the long way round eases the guilt of travel at least a little.

So I made my way from Munich to Berlin on an overnight train ride—the ten-hour meander, not the four-hour express. It was the cheapest leg available, since I was buying tickets at the last minute; and I thought I might as well save on a night’s accommodation. That morning, after checking out of my hotel in Munich, I left my backpack in a locker at the central station, took the 10 a.m. train to the alpine town of Berchtesgaden near the Austrian border to reach the Eagles’s Nest—a mountain retreat once used by Nazi party members—and returned to Munich the same way, arriving at 9:15 p.m. I took a hurried shower at the station—look out for Mr. Clean!—and caught the 9:51 p.m. train out, arriving in Berlin just before 8 a.m. the next day, and waited two hours at a cafe before I could check into the Airbnb my friend, who was flying in from London to meet me, had booked for us.

I find it weirdly satisfying to put myself through the paces when I travel. The demands of being on the move invigorate me. There’s something about straining my body that makes me feel used, and useful—a welcome reminder, perhaps, that I’m in control of it, that I can make it do what I want it to do, and that it can withstand some wear and tear from sustained, concentrated activity. The tightness in my right shoulder from always carrying my backpack on that side. The claw-like sensation in my feet and the swollen feeling in my calves from really using my legs again—I make myself walk as much as possible so I pay closer attention to my surroundings. The lack of sleep from trying to squeeze in too many activities in a day while keeping up with other time zones for work outstanding and trying to accommodate the sleeping cycles of others when I stay in hostel dormitories. Even the occasional angry red spots that mar my skin from bug bites of undetermined origin (luckily so far, nothing antihistamines can’t help)—not letting them bother me too much can feel like a small triumph.

All that contrasts with the practised ease of routine at home, which I equate with comfort—the kind that can gradually slide into complacency if I’m not mindful. It’s all too easy to take home for granted. I don’t always feel the urgency to explore as much as I can, because I can put it off until tomorrow, and tomorrow again. There are things I cease to see because I see it every day. I once wrote of home: “KL is KL. Something else tugs at me here, still, even if I’m not quite sure what it is yet. In a way, maybe it’s the absence of an easy, taken-for-granted love for it, despite it being home, that makes me want to find even more reason to love it. It must be because I just haven’t seen enough of it yet, I tell myself. Maybe my perspective has been blunted by familiarity, and I’ve yet to open my eyes to this city fully.” Luckily, reporting and writing forces me to keep my eyes open, and to try to understand the things I see. It re-attunes me when I start to coil, too much, into myself.

So getting back on the road is a chance for me to break out of my routine. A few years ago, after I made a ten-day journey by dugout canoe through the Amazon jungle in Peru, a friend wondered at how I could swing so effortlessly from the comfort of home to the discomfort of such adventures from one day to another. (More on the Amazon journey further along this letter.) I guess it’s just a way to mix things up, to keep myself ever sensitised to the world, to force myself to notice what I might otherwise overlook. It’s one way—and surely not everyone’s way—to feel alive: to keep, as a mentor once said, “a keen eye and a full heart”, and not just in writing. These words serve as an ongoing ideal for me: this is how I would like to be, always.

This is how I travel when I’m on my own. It’s different when I’m with friends and family—more relaxed, more about their company than the place. (I am capable of having relaxing, fun trips, yes! Don’t forsake me yet as a travel companion!) Neither way is better than the other. Just different.

Kehlsteinhaus, a.k.a. the Eagle’s Nest: once a mountain retreat for Nazi party members, now a tourist attraction.

The Eagles’s Nest is often referred to as “Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest” because it was a present to him from his Nazi party members on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. But despite how the Kehlsteinhaus is advertised to tourists, it seems that Hitler never actually spent all that much time there. Completed in 1938, it’s perched at more than 6,000 feet on the peak of a mountain, which had been hollowed out to build a marble tunnel more than 120 metres long and an elevator shaft of about the same height, which provided access to the house. It looks like a grandstanding lair of some James Bond villain—yes, I thought that and others have thought that; it’s true!—calculated to induce awe, and maybe not a little fear, in visitors.

In hopes of getting more detail on the history from my trip there (I have both a working and personal interest in WWII), I had signed up for a tour, which turned out to be led by a young German-American who looked to be in his early twenties. It’s been his summer job for several years now, and I overheard him say to an elderly American couple that what he really wanted to be was a journalist because he was interested in history and politics. They were impressed by what they saw as his budding worldliness—partly to do with his being both American and European, I sensed; we seem to think of being born into certain places as a personal achievement, rather than a lottery—and by his boyish cheekiness. I’m reminded of myself at his age, when the world feels like a map you can pin your hopes and dreams on, if you only hope and dream hard enough, brightly enough, and when your choices have not yet determined, in some way, your life. I know, I know, I’m only in my thirties, but it made me feel a little wistful, though also optimistic. I silently cheered him on.

At the end of the tour, I got talking to a travelling father-daughter pair when we both missed the 5:30 p.m. train from Berchtesgaden back to Munich and had to wait for the next one. They invited me to sit with them when we found ourselves in the same restaurant next to the train station, and I found out that he’s a lawyer in Washington D.C., and that she’s a university sophomore, likely to follow in his footsteps. We engaged in small talk, mostly: our respective experiences in Germany, my work as a writer and abandoned career in law, his work and her studies. And then, when she went off to the toilet, and because I had asked about the rest of their family earlier, he confided that he was divorced from her mother, and that normally he would rope his three other children along—but, really, accommodating all of them can be difficult, especially when their other halves come along, because he would feel obliged to pay for their trip too. He laughed, not a little sheepish, when he said this, and I laughed back, appreciating the winking honesty.

Then, when the train arrived, we left the restaurant and went our separate ways. We didn’t sit together or share contacts or even last names that could be Googled, and I’ve actually now forgotten their first names. But meeting strangers is one of the most rewarding aspects of travel for me, even when I only get the most fleeting glimpse into their lives, and the mutual feeling of goodwill doesn’t extend beyond the present moment, and there’s absolute nothing to remember them by beyond the fallibility of one’s memory. I think I find it comforting to think of all these people scattered around the world, trying to live their lives the best they can—just the idea that life goes on, everywhere, no matter what happens to your life, no matter what happens in any one part of the world.

So I was generally feeling good, and self-assured, and all right with the world as I embarked on my long train ride later that evening. Travelling solo has its downsides, but it also feels liberating in a way that nothing else quite approximates. And I suppose the solitude is mostly self-imposed, which is quite different from that forced by circumstance. Though paradoxically, at the same time, being a lone figure in a crowd also opens you up to unexpected human interactions. So you have moments of solitude, and then you don’t—should you just smile more, speak more, make more eye contact. Like the New York Times’ 52 Places Traveler Seb Modak wrote in this piece:

loneliness is surprisingly rare when you're travelling alone. And two, people are just the best. Loneliness happens, but it can turn. It can turn quickly

But it does take more conscious effort to open up myself to conversation with strangers now than it used to, when I was in my early twenties and wandering around Central America. Perhaps it’s got something to do with knowing from experience that out of ten people you come across you’ll maybe really only connect with one or two, so you become more reserved, less willing to engage further when rapport doesn’t come quickly. I’ve made good enough friends from my travels that I should be more optimistic on this point, but I still have to remind myself to be.

Throwback: Staying with the Simo family, of the indigenous Bidayuh community, in the village of Ulu Bengoh, Sarawak—a Malaysian state that’s part of Borneo.

And there is a process of easing into an unfamiliar place, for me, while travelling alone. I start out more quietly spoken, more tentative, as if feeling for the next foothold in the dark. Going into crowded restaurants or shops alone and having to ask for something, where English is not the first language, can feel awkward and daunting. I feel like everyone must be staring at me, when no one is. It feels like entering someone’s house as a guest, but in the macro sense—their country is their house, and you’re just coming and going. I recall the things my mother used to tell me, whenever I stayed at someone else’s home as a child: Don’t be an inconvenience. Do what your hosts do. Leave the place the way you found it. The residue of childhood lessons can carry over into adulthood.

When someone was rude to me on the train, I was so taken aback I didn’t react in the way I wish I had.

Having found what I thought was my carriage and seat (the ticket was detailed in German), I found a pale, long-haired young man sitting in it. He was plugged into his earphones, did not look up at me. I said “Excuse me” a few times, with that tentativeness I was still feeling. When he didn’t respond, I tapped him lightly on the shoulder. He ignored me for a few beats, then yanked off his headphones with an exasperated flourish and said, “Are you in comfort?”

“What?” I said, not understanding, still tentative—wondering if I had so misunderstood something as to incur, reasonably, this person’s annoyance.

“Comfort!” he said again, now slapping his hands on the seats and the backs of the seats in front of him in emphasis, his scraggly curls flapping—at least, in my retrospective imagining.

Ohh. I mean, I don’t remember a “Comfort” class" when I was booking my ticket, but perhaps he meant First Class; I was meant to be in Second Class. If that’s what this was about, well, what an overreaction.

I wish I could say that I said something so harsh it knocked him sideways. But in truth, I was still confused by his outburst in the moment, and just walked away after aiming a quizzical eye roll at him. (I think I’ve quite perfected the unhurried, unfazed saunter from more than a decade of travelling solo—in reaction to sexual harassment on the streets, for one.) At fortunately rare moments like these, I often think back to one memorably glorious occasion when I told a rude cyclist who had yelled at me and a friend to get the fuck out of his way in Chinatown, London—no, we were not obstructing the bicycle lane—to “Fuck back off!” and his satisfying silence. I guess how I respond to these situations often comes down to my mood in the moment. I’m not proud of it, but that time I slung back, it did feel good.

The train incident brought home again to me how dependent the travel experience is on the kindness of strangers. And honestly, I did wish for a moment, right then, that I was back home in the familiar embrace of family and friends. Why do I do this to myself? I thought. Wouldn’t I just like to find someplace I feel I completely belong to, and pitch up and start building a life in one place, instead of fragments of it in multiple places? It’s a thought that occurs not infrequently to me. And yet, the kind of stories I’m inspired to tell seems to encourage a peripatetic existence, and usually necessitates travelling on one’s own. And I think, while I haven’t found that person or other reasons to compel me to make a home (yet, one hopes), shouldn’t I continue to do this as much as I can?

I don’t have the answers. But this passage by Susan Orlean from her first collection of travel stories, My Kind of Place, helps me remember why the pursuit of my desire is worthwhile, despite the episodic loneliness:

There is nothing that has quite the dull thud of being by yourself in a place you don’t know, surrounded by people you don’t recognise and to whom you mean nothing. But that’s what being a writer requires. Writing is a wonderful life—a marvellous life, in fact—but it is also the life of a vapour, of floating in unseen, filling a space, and then vanishing. There are times when I’m travelling, when I’m far from home, that I am so forlorn that I can’t remember why I chose this particular profession. I yearn to be home so fiercely that I feel as though my heart will pop out of my chest. And then I step out to see the world spread around me. I know where I’m heading: I am heading home. But on the way there, I see so many corners to round and doors to open, so many encounters to chance upon, so many tiny moments to stumble into that tell huge stories, that I remember exactly why I took this particular path. The journey begins again; the story starts over; I gather myself and go out to see what I can see and tell it as best I can, and the beckoning of home is always, forever, there, just over the next horizon.

And soon enough, as the train approached Berlin and the morning, my doubts slowly evaporated.

Six hours before we arrived in Berlin, a stranger had stepped onto my carriage, looking like some chrome hip-hop prince. He was wearing a dark wine-coloured satin bomber and socks pulled up to his calves with black tracks tucked in. He had a ring pierced into a pugnacious nose, counterpoised by a surprisingly narrow chin and a tall frame. He looked around for a spot to park himself for the night’s journey, and seemed to decide on the seat next to mine.

He had his earphones on; I had my earphones on. He dipped his chin regally and smiled, just a little—in greeting, in question. I dipped my chin back and smiled, just a little, and brought my backpack closer to me. He raised his hand and patted the air—No sweat, he seemed to be saying. At some point during our train ride, my backpack tipped over to his side, and he stayed it with his knee; when it tipped back over to my side, I stayed it with mine. And it sat like that between us the whole time, in a state of perfect equilibrium. Hours later, after we had both slept and woken, a few stops before Berlin’s central train station, he stood up, and before he got off he turned, nodded in that same regal manner, smiled again, and disappeared. And I thought, It doesn’t take much to move through the world with grace.

We had been wearing our earphones the whole time, never exchanged a single word. And my faith in strangers was restored by a silent non-encounter with one.

Arrived to gorgeous summer days in Berlin.

c. August ‘19

Support this newsletter with a paid subscription
For now, you can stay on a free subscription and still read most of my letters, since I’d like them to be read by as many of you as possible. 
But by making a paid subscription, you’d not only be directly supporting this newsletter’s growth (you’ll get one or more dispatches a month—find out more here), you’d also be supporting my storytelling endeavours more generally. You’d be helping me cultivate a readership of my own, independent of the publications I write for. Sometimes, writers just want to write what they want to write, without requiring editorial permission; and certain stories are more fitting for autonomous, personal outlets like this.
So if you like what I do, I’d be very grateful if you would consider contributing USD$5 monthly (it’s the minimum set by Substack; and you can cancel at any time), or a discounted USD$50 annually. But paying subscriber or not, know that I’m thankful for every one of you reading.
Can’t commit to a subscription? You can make a one-off contribution instead at paypal.me/emydeewrites—however much you’d like, in whatever currency you choose. Think of it as a digital tip jar. Many thanks in advance!

A few stories I wrote

On a related note to my letter: I was asked by The Lily, Washington Post’s newsletter for women, to write a mini essay on travelling alone. You can read the published version here, alongside essays by fellow freelance journos Meg Bernhard and Didem Tali.

Or you can read this version I edited retrospectively, which is slightly longer and ends differently:

Throwback: Santiago and Maritza, my guides through ten days in the Peruvian Amazon.

At the turn of 2015, when I was between endings and beginnings, I felt an urge to look out onto the world once more—its immensity, its unknowability—to find a way of seeing it anew. In search of that tiny shift in mind and heart that is capable of changing one’s life, I had travelled to Peru, and thought to end my trip with a five-day journey by dugout canoe through the Amazon jungle in the north. I had met a group of travellers headed the same way with the same idea, and thought I would join them.

Then, I saw the map of the river. It covered one wall of a small travel agency's office in sleepy Lagunas—the gateway village to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve—and five days would take me barely halfway up it. Instead, I followed the bright blue rivulet right to the edge of the ceiling, where it pooled into a lake: Cocha Pasto. “It’s pure wilderness there,” Miguel said, with a whispery reverence that made an impression on me. But it was at least a ten-day trip, which was exactly how many days I had before my flight home. I decided that’s where I would go, though it meant forgoing the group’s company. I wanted a challenge, an old-fashioned adventure; I wanted to feel awe. Later, I learned that I was only the eighth person that year to make the same journey.

I say it now like I had made the decision just like that. But I agonised over it. I had seen enough movies to imagine the Amazon’s possible horrors, and the fact that there would be zero means of communication after the third day weighed on my mind—even as I texted my human ports-of-call and told them not to worry unless they didn’t hear from me by the eleventh day. Still, Miguel had talked about Cocha Pasto in terms eminently doable, with a safe return seemingly taken for granted. I dared myself to go ahead, but, erring on the side of caution, asked if he knew a female guide—and was surprised when he said yes. The next morning, I found out that he had simply asked the guide to bring his wife. "Two for the price of one," Miguel said cheerfully. You can imagine how it looked: like I was being chaperoned. With some hilarity, I thought, That’s not the kind of traveler I want to appear to be! And yet, as a woman traveling alone, you feel obligated to take all the precautions you can.

In the end, I couldn’t imagine those ten days without my guides, Santiago and Maritza. The way he teased her about her less-than-stellar fishing skills, and the way she giggled back—it was like they were still the teenage sweethearts they had once been. And despite the ordeal that it sometimes was—the eighty or so mosquito bites I counted all over my body (it’s an approximate number; I did actually count them), the flooded cabanas (it was the rainy season; we had to sleep on a roof beam once), the way we had to relieve ourselves just by backing our butts out the stern of the canoe (the jungle was flooded; often there was no land in sight to perch on), and the fact that we never made it to Cocha Pasto (the timing of the rains stymied our way in; I had limited time)—it’s a journey that, four years later, I still think about.

I think about how—clichéd as it sounds—it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. How the colour of the river changed from tea brown to polished black as we went deeper into the jungle, reflecting perfectly the world above. How the “kutu-kutu” (that’s what Santiago called it), with their stubborn water roots, blanketed the river for miles, so that it looked like we had been transplanted to some kind of surreal golf course. And I think about the many portentous stories Santiago told of the dangerous beasts we thought we heard but ultimately never saw: a reminder that for a sojourner in the jungle, at least, your imagination might be the wildest thing there is.

For a sojourner, too, a self-imposed aloneness lets you enter strange worlds more fully, and lets you check out when you want to. Nelson, a ranger we met who spent forty days out in the jungle at a time in complete isolation, didn't have that choice, and I will always remember him for his chipped front tooth—a memento, he said, from when he had woken up one night shuddering from a bad dream and found himself gnawing on his rifle's barrel. As we chugged away from his lonely outpost one morning after spending a night, he made a mock sadface and said, “I’m going to cry when you all leave.” But I sensed a welling sincerity, and imagined he might have done just that when we rounded the bend, out of sight.

P.S. I’ve yet to write up the full travelogue from that journey, though I’ve got a draft going. But if you want to read more about that trip, I’d written another short piece about the experience for Roads & Kingdoms—on eating piranhas for breakfast. Read it here.

I had been nursing the thought of doing a series of photos and short narratives about young refugees coming of age in exile in Malaysia. I was interested in how they were coping with the trauma of conflict and displacement, and balancing all that with just being a teenager. In the end, I wrote a news feature about how two Rohingya friends are rebuilding their lives in Malaysia. It’s not the first time I’ve written about Hasson (right of photo), having first met him in 2015 at the Langsa refugee shelter in Aceh, Indonesia, after the smuggler’s boat he was on sank in the Andaman sea during that year’s regional refugee crisis; and in this new story, I pick up his story from where we left off. Tobarik’s story, too, is particularly poignant, and I came away from talking to him (left of photo), while we sat on one of those concrete construction boulders in the coming rain, feeling a lot of goodwill for these kids who have had to flee everything they know to find a safe place in an inhospitable world not of their own making.

Read the story at PRI The World.

Kuala Lumpur’s downtown Petaling Street area, known colloquially as “Chinatown”—it was the landing point of many Cantonese and Hakka settlers from China during the tin rush of the 1800s—has long been popular among tourists for its namesake market, Chinese and Indian temples, hawker food, and budget hostels. For the city’s inhabitants, however, the area has been plagued by the impression that it is seedy and unsafe, and that it has lost its local character due to an influx of immigrant workers.

Valid or not, this perception may be slowly changing. I wrote about the new entrepreneurs setting up shop in the area who are bringing crowds back by flagging its rich cultural and architectural heritage (albeit imperfectly), and about the creeping gentrification of the neighbourhood.

Read the story at South China Morning Post.

I wrote about the problems with Malaysia’s legal system that make the continued application of the death penalty dangerous, as well as the government’s proposed reforms, discussed through the lens of the case of Mainthan Arumugam—a man convicted for murder who has been sitting on death row for fourteen years, and whose repeated pleas for royal clemency have been rejected. Several lawyers and human rights activists have highlighted his case as an example where fresh evidence needs to be reconsidered in light of the ambiguity surrounding the identity of his alleged victim, but there’s been no progress as yet. His wife Gunalakshmi Karupaya (see photo above) continues to lobby for his pardon and release.

Read the story at New Naratif.

A slice of life from Instagram

I also visited London and the Jurassic Coast in southwest England this summer. Take a look at my Instagram highlight: “England 2019”. I’ll be adding the last batch of photos to it soon, so watch out for updates.

More at instagram.com/emydeewrites

Whew, that was a long one. I hope you took your time on it. I particularly enjoyed writing this dispatch. Here’s to more travel essays!

P.S. I wrote part of this letter while listening to a number by Hamburg duo Kollektiv Turmstrasse, recalled from a day in Berlin:

It’s early evening and the police block off a road in the neighbourhood of Friedrichshain. No one seems concerned. As if led by some invisible collective impulse, people stop and start sitting themselves on the pavements, beer and snacks in hand, while a cafe party with a DJ spinning outside spills out onto the street. And then this song plays, and despite myself (and my usual indifference to techno), I’m feeling the beat.


Facebook – Instagram – Twitter
Comments, recommendations, story/travel ideas?
Catch up on past letters here.
Other ways you can support this newsletter
+ Like this dispatch? A personal thumbs-up from you would really make my day. Please take a second to “heart” it below, and feel free to forward it on or share it on social media. Please link back to emydeewrites.substack.com
+ Write this newsletter a personal recommendation, which I’ll share here. Just email it to me, thanks!
+ I’m always looking for opportunities to do more of what I love to do. Tell an editor you know that I write news, culture, and travel features (longform, too)—from Kuala Lumpur, where I’m based; or occasionally, from elsewhere. I’m also open to collaborations.
All words and multimedia published in this letter © 2019 Emily Ding, unless otherwise noted or as common sense dictates. All rights reserved.

The Motley Guide to Art and Life #6

You can also read this letter online at bit.ly/mgal6

Hello from Berlin!

I’m writing this letter to you from the very cosy lobby of the Michelberger Hotel (once a brick factory) in the Friedrichshain neighbourhood, nursing my cup of coffee until the staff, perhaps, sees fit to gently usher me out. I’m not staying here, but non-guests are welcome to use the premises to fiddle on their laptops till 3 a.m. It feels like it could be one of that breed of hotels like Ace and Hoxton in London and hostels like Fabrika in Tbilisi, with lobbies that also double as cafes and working spaces open to the public. I say it “could be” because it seems like people aren’t really doing that yet, so there’s always a seat and a socket available!

After some days of non-stop walking exploring the city, I’m taking a breather today to make notes of all that I’ve seen, finish up some story edits and pitch new stories, and write this newsletter. But being on the road this month, I’ve been engaging more with the outside world instead of the ideas contained in books and the internet, trying to take everything in—so, as you’d expect, I’ve not been reading and writing as much as I normally would. As such, this edition of the motley guide is quite a bit shorter than the usual, distilled to the essentials.

I did manage to add to my #2019fictionchallenge back in Malaysia by reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestingswhich I would recommend if you’re in your late twenties or thirties and you’ve been pondering what will become of all our grand ambitions, how envy of our more “successful” friends may affect our friendships, and whether we can learn to accept, with some measure of grace, what becomes of our lives (I can think of so many people who will relate to all this)—but I’ll write more about it another time as I haven’t brought the book with me.

I’m also just starting to read David Szalay’s Turbulence, a collection of linked short fiction about twelve people navigating the airports of the world and the upheavals of their lives. I picked it up from the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Sons nearby (no relation of Shakespeare and Company in Paris), which also has a in-house cafe offering bagels—though laptops can only be used at designated tables. At first, I thought it was a little precious of them to restrict laptop use, but thinking it over, I can see why: You see people just sitting and reading a book. Amazing!

Anyway, I’m working on a more personal letter next, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t drop the ball on this habitual series. It’s my way of holding on to bits of what I’ve read and watched and listened to, so they don’t become ephemera. If these speak to you in some way too, let me know.

Support this newsletter with a paid subscription
For now, you can stay on a free subscription and still read most of my letters, since I’d like them to be read by as many of you as possible. 
But by making a paid subscription, you’d not only be directly supporting this newsletter’s growth (you’ll get one or more dispatches a month—find out more here), you’d also be supporting my storytelling endeavours more generally. You’d be helping me cultivate a readership of my own, independent of the publications I write for. Sometimes, writers just want to write what they want to write, without requiring editorial permission; and certain stories are more fitting for autonomous, personal outlets like this.
So if you like what I do, I’d be very grateful if you would consider contributing USD$5 monthly (it’s the minimum set by Substack; and you can cancel at any time), or a discounted USD$50 annually. But paying subscriber or not, know that I’m thankful for every one of you reading.
Can’t commit to a subscription? You can make a one-off contribution instead at paypal.me/emydeewrites—however much you’d like, in whatever currency you choose. Think of it as a digital tip jar. Many thanks in advance!
What we see & what we don’t see

Rebecca Norris Webb
The Glass Between Us

I feel so much for her photos, in part because they hold something I think I’ve been trying to reach for myself, though I’m certainly no poet. The critic David Gibson wrote that her photographs are “not reliant on people—traces of people, yes”, containing memories and unspoken feelings and landscapes. “I think of her images as being ventilated, full of entrances and exits. She is a visual poet of thresholds.”

The places we make & the places that make us

At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves—that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.

Alain de Botton
The Art of Travel

A ballad of the human heart

He drew her closer, until their noses were almost touching and their faces went dark. He said, ‘So did you think then it was love at first sight?’ His tone was light-hearted and mocking, but she decided to take him seriously. The anxieties she would face were still far off, though occasionally she wondered what it was she was heading towards. A month ago they had told each other they were in love, and that was both a thrill and afterwards, for her, a cause of one night of half waking, of vague dread that she had been impetuous and let go of something important, given something away that was not really hers to give. But it was too interesting, too new, too flattering, too deeply comforting to resist, it was a liberation to be in love and say so, and she could only let herself go deeper.

Ian McEwan
On Chesil Beach (also a film)

Something to tickle your funnybone

File this under celebrities letting their guard down, with very interesting—and somewhat squirm-worthy—results!

Got a funny video to share? Send it over and I’ll credit you if I include it in my next letter.

Some words to live by

Does history repeat itself? Or are the repetitions only penance for those who are incapable of listening to it? No history is mute. No matter how much they burn it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is. The right to remember does not figure among the human rights consecrated by the United Nations, but now more than ever we must insist on it and act on it. Not to repeat the past but to keep it from being repeated. Not to make us ventriloquists for the dead but to allow us to speak with voices that are not condemned to echo perpetually with stupidity and misfortune. When it is truly alive, memory doesn’t contemplate history, it invites us to make it. More than in museums, where its poor old soul gets bored, memory is in the air we breathe, and from the air it breathes us.

Eduardo Galeano
Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World

Overheard… in Berlin

and at this magic hour
I’ll confuse the power
of a stolen word
for what is unheard

Stumbling across this song by a Canadian three-man band feels like being let in on a little secret. They might just grow into becoming a new favourite. lovingband.com

Till the next one.


Facebook – Instagram – Twitter
Comments, recommendations, story/travel ideas?
Catch up on past letters here.
Other ways you can support this newsletter
+ Like this dispatch? A personal thumbs-up from you would really make my day. Please take a second to “heart” it below, and feel free to forward it on or share it on social media. Please link back to emydeewrites.substack.com
+ Write this newsletter a personal recommendation, which I’ll share here. Just email it to me, thanks!
+ I’m always looking for opportunities to do more of what I love to do. Tell an editor you know that I write news, culture, and travel features (longform, too)—from Kuala Lumpur, where I’m based; or occasionally, from elsewhere. I’m also open to collaborations.
All words and multimedia published in this letter © 2019 Emily Ding, unless otherwise noted or as common sense dictates. All rights reserved.

The Motley Guide to Art and Life #5

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

What we see & what we don’t see

David Heath
Dialogues with Solitude

“The pictures, usually taken in cities, occlude urban chaos, so that tight compositions offer a full sense of the solitude and emotion that one senses Mr. Heath must have also felt profoundly. Even pictures with many figures show them lost in some kind of deep thought, each entranced by whatever interior activity and in no way seeming aware of sharing a frame with all the other people. The world Mr. Heath presents is quiet and contemplative; he even renders war mute, still and full of meaning. A smile, rare in his oeuvre, is not what it seems” —Matt McCann #

The places we make & the places that make us

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

Jane Brox
A Social—and Personal—History of Silence

A ballad of the human heart

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

Daniel Alarcón
“War by Candlelight”, from the collection War by Candlelight

Something to tickle your funny bone

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

Some words to live by

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

Tim Wu
The Tyranny of Convenience

Explorations from my couch


Delayed Rays of a Star
By Amanda Lee Koe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mustang
By Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can also send me a recommendation via email, which I’ll share here.

Know someone who would enjoy this newsletter too? Please tell them to subscribe at emydeewrites.substack.com. A personal thumbs-up would really make my day!

Till the next one.


Facebook – Instagram – Twitter
Comments, recommendations, story/travel ideas?
Catch up on past letters here.

The Motley Guide to Art and Life #4

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

What we see & what we don’t see

Herbert Bayer
“Humanly Impossible”, 1932. A self-portrait. #

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

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 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

More couch explorations

The Passion Paradox
By Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Goodreads.

The Death of Truth
By Michiko Kakutani

As Kakutani quotes Hannah Arendt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Goodreads.

P.S. Shoutout to my favourite local indie bookshop Lit Books, where I bought this!

Slapdash movie reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can also send me a recommendation via email, which I’ll share here.

Know someone who would enjoy this newsletter too? Please tell them to subscribe at emydeewrites.substack.com. A personal thumbs-up would really make my day!


Facebook – Instagram – Twitter
Comments, recommendations, story/travel ideas?
Catch up on past letters here.

Vol. 3, Letter from Northern Ireland: Blurred lines of violence, loyalty, and love

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

+ You can also read this online at bit.ly/emydeewritesletter3
+ Screenshots aside, all photographs in this letter are mine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man #1: Early thirties, Catholic, unionist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something I wrote recently

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

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

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

A slice of life from Instagram

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

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

More at instagram.com/emydeewrites

This letter was made while listening to…

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

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

You can also write me a recommendation, which I’ll share here.

Know someone who would enjoy this newsletter too? Please tell them to subscribe at emydeewrites.substack.com. A personal thumbs-up would really make my day!


Facebook – Instagram – Twitter
Comments, recommendations, story/travel ideas?
Catch up on past letters here.

Loading more posts…