Art in life and life in art #3

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

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

Possible companion mood song?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something to tickle your funnybone

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

Some words to live by

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

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

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

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

Joan Didion
Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power

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