Art in life and life in art #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
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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!)
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Till the next one.
Comments, recommendations, story/travel ideas?
Catch up on past letters here.