Vol. 2, Letter from Malaysia: The perils of certainty and the last room
Truth and justice, the death penalty, and how we see the world.
You can also read this letter online at bit.ly/emydeewritesletter2
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 suspended truth, until someone/something else either confirms or debunks it. Honestly, it gives me quite a bit of anxiety, this delicate business of determining the truth (I’m speaking, here, of something more nuanced than fact), especially when something neither debunks or confirms but remains just off-kilter, just disobliges to conform to what you already know: a puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. That’s when it gets tricky—though it can also get exciting, if you find something unexpected. And sometimes, it can feel downright existential.
By which I mean: I worry often about all the different sides to a truth, and how one tiny piece withheld or obscured or uncovered could change how one sees everything. It keeps me up at night every time I’ve turned over a piece to editors, makes me dream of my teeth falling out. I even dream about editors getting back to me pointing out all the ways in which I’ve erred, and then I’m re-writing the piece in my sleep, line by line—it’s very specific!—and then I’ve penned a whole piece and I wake up and I realise that none of it actually happened. Even months later, when a piece has long been published and no one has decried anything I wrote as myopic or inadequate or false, I’ll come across something that reminds me of the piece I wrote and I’ll feel the urge to double-check if everything in it still holds.
I’m grateful to one magazine editor for understanding this about me when I was a younger reporter, and how he chose to see it in the best light possible. Having submitted a feature which required detailed research and reporting, I made some changes days later so that my language would be more accurate in places, less susceptible to interpretations I never intended. This annoyed the deputy editor a little—understandable, since it was his responsibility to close the issue. But the editor pointed out, gently, that, hey, at least I was coming from a place of conscientiousness, and suggested that I build more time into my process going forward.
It’s a little obsessive, I know. After all, it’s just not realistic to cover the ground exhaustively on any subject at any one time, especially given limited time and scope when one is writing for work. Still, that doesn’t stop me from worrying that I haven’t done enough—of reporting, of fact-checking, of clarifying my language—even as I have to move on to other stories. Like that time I visited a block of low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur to find out its residents’ everyday concerns, and what they thought about the upcoming general elections and their constituency’s party candidates. That day, I managed to speak to eight families, and my main takeaway was: they’re telling people they’re going to vote for the incumbent government, when they’re actually planning to vote for the opposition. But wait, what if I were to speak to another five families, or another ten families? Would my takeaway change?
Then, there’s the dilemma, too, of differing fact interpretations. We can’t help but see the world through our own eyes, and we make judgements based on our own experiences. Give a bunch of people the same set of facts and they might all come to different insights about them. Like that time in the run-up to the general elections, when I was observing a political candidate at a walkabout, with a British media trainer shadowing me. At some point, he said to me, “Look at the man’s wife, her Louis Vuitton shoes. She’s not a simple woman. Maybe she wields some influence in his decisions.” And I thought, That could be true. Or she could just be a rich woman. Or it could have just been her best pair of shoes. We figure out what’s going on in any given situation by reading cues, but what if the way we’ve learned to read cues—predicated on what we’re told is human behaviour—isn’t always right?
Like another time, in Kolkata last year, when one of the Chinese uncles in the city’s old Chinatown told me, “You know, tourists go to the Sunday morning market with their cameras and they take photographs of the old Chinese women sitting on the street and they think they’re poor. But what they don’t know is that that these old Chinese women have children in Switzerland, Austria, Canada. They can leave and go abroad anytime they want to, but they like Kolkata, because life is good here if you have some money. So of course when these old ladies see their pictures online, posted on a blog or something, saying they’re poor, they don’t like it.”
Just this morning, I read this NiemanLab piece, “Fact-checking can’t do much when people’s ‘dueling facts’ are driven by values instead of knowledge”:
Those who care about oppression look for oppression — so they find it.
Those who care about security look for threats to it — and they find them.
In other words, people do not end up with the same answers because they do not begin with the same questions. […]
Education is another possible means of encouraging consensus perceptions, but it can actually make things worse. Rather than training people how to think more reasonably, college and graduate school merely sharpen the lenses graduates use to perceive reality. In our data, those with higher levels of education are more, not less, divided. And the higher the level of training, the more tightly values and perceptions intertwine. Education provides the tools to more efficiently match their preferred values to their perceived facts.
Based on this evidence, we conclude that dueling fact perceptions (or what some have labeled “alternative facts”) are probably here to stay, and worsen.
None of this is reassuring.
In light of all this, I’m generally more prone to uncertainty than I am certainty. I’m more ready than not to doubt what I know, to question my assumptions and biases, when a new aspect of a thing reveals itself. I find it hard to commit absolutely to one perspective or another. I’m liable to always question myself, at the introduction of a newfound fact that shifts the ground, Wait, was I wrong? A friend told me recently that I should try writing op-eds, and everything I’ve just said is why I don’t think I could.
And I’m thinking about something a newsroom editor said to me a few years ago: “Emily, you’ve got to wear your heart on your sleeve!”
Such a great line, isn’t it? Sounds like love advice. But it had to do with a piece I was writing, and what I think he really meant was: All you can do is take a stand based on the facts that you’ve, under limited circumstances and limited time, found out; and if called upon, defend your ground based on what you’ve seen, and admit it when you’ve got it wrong. That’s all you can do, or you’d be too afraid to ever say anything worthwhile. And then what kind of writer would you be?
I think I’ve gotten better at this since, and I’ve become more ready to editorialise—albeit very subtly—in stories that aren’t straight news stories with my own insights, which I’ve learned to rely on with a little more confidence. I’ve also grown more comfortable with the idea that I won’t always get everything right for everyone, that none of us who work at documenting and portraying the world will always get it right for everyone; and I feel more ready to face criticism (even if unjustified), should it arise. The attempt to understand and tell people’s stories is always worthwhile, as long as we’ve made a reasonable reading of the facts and made an effort to understand them in context. You’ve got to believe that to do this work.
But I still dream about my teeth falling out.
I guess all of this is my roundabout way of saying that this is why I’m in favour of abolishing the death penalty: the possibility of making mistakes, at every stage of the legal process. Others who support abolition might emphasise the fact that death is not an effective deterrent to the commission of crimes; or that everyone, even those who commit murder, deserves a chance at redemption; or that, if we acknowledge that taking a life is wrong, it then follows that the state shouldn’t do the same.
For a recent story, I visited the family of a man on death row in Malaysia, whose lawyers have argued, to no avail, that one element of the crime of murder—the act itself—hasn’t been made out beyond all reasonable doubt, due to conflicting evidence on the identity of the victim. This is his wife, Gunalakshmi Karupaya, with one of her children.
I mostly agree with all that, but the most persuasive reason to abolish the death penalty, for me, is that no legal system is perfect. It’s not a matter of criticising or blaming anyone for not doing their jobs right; even if everyone were to act in good faith, there could still be mistakes. For instance: when assumptions are made in the face of inconclusive or conflicting evidence, assumptions the principles of law allows under certain circumstances. And if we accept that, how can we do the irrevocable?
On the flip side, some who argue in favour of the death penalty believe that an eye should be taken for an eye, that someone who takes a life forfeits their right to a life, that the only way to redemption is to surrender in kind. To be honest, I’m sympathetic to that view, especially when I think of the most heinous crimes like murder and rape, and especially when committed, in cold blood, against children. But then, the mere thought of the possibility of a wrongful conviction is enough to give me pause.
Given the inevitability of mistakes (to my mind, the only question would be how often they occur), I guess the question to answer is: Would you rather let a few murderous criminals live—in prison, for life—than sentence even one person to death for a crime he didn’t commit? Or would you rather let one innocent person hang for the surety of knowing that the most hardcore criminals get their just deserts?
It’s a question Malaysians are currently grappling with, since the announcement in October last year of a proposal to abolish the death penalty totally—a reform that has since been postponed and may be reduced to a partial abolition instead due to some vocal, high-profile opposition. In Malaysia, where death row is metaphorically called the “last room” (translated from the Malay language: bilik akhir), “wrongful convictions” doesn’t exist in our legal vocabulary. We don’t have a way to suss them out, unlike in other jurisdictions like the U.S., the U.K., Taiwan, and many others. I wrote more about this in that piece that’s waiting to be published, so I won’t go into it here. But I want to point you to some gut-wrenching stories of people in other countries who were convicted for murder and sentenced to death, having exhausted all appeals; and then later—posthumously, uselessly—found innocent. But what’s left to do but to clear their names?
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:
+ The British actor Jack O’Connell, who plays Cameron Todd Willingham in Trial by Fire, is really good in ‘71, which I watched as research in writing this VQR piece about the Troubles, and the prison drama Starred Up—though you might know him better from the Netflix series Godless.
+ David Grann’s stories have been popular fodder for Hollywood. His New Yorker piece “The Old Man and The Gun”, about a dapper sexagenarian bank robber and prison escape artist, was also made into a film starring Robert Redford by one of my favourite directors, David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story). His books have also been adapted: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson; and Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, directed by Martin Scorsese and headlined by Leonardo Dicaprio—currently in production.
+ For more reads on the idea of trial by jury, Five Books (possibly my favourite book curation website) has some great suggestions. I’d recommend The Trial by Sadakat Kadri, which takes you through 4,000 years of criminal trials, and you’ll learn again that human history is cruel and wonderful and weird.
Some things I wrote recently
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.
“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.
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” (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), about a two-day trip to the Royal Belum State Park in the Malaysian state of Perak—still relatively off the beaten track. Also see my Facebook photo album from that trip.
A slice of life from Instagram
Somewhere I was recently: Foraging for lunch with the indigenous Temuan community in Kampung Tohor, in the state of Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia.
More at instagram.com/emydeewrites
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