Vol. 5, Notes from places in between
On transitions, here versus there, and the pursuit of transcendence.
You can also read this letter online at bit.ly/emydeewritesletter5
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” #
Hello, it’s been a while.
I started writing a long letter back in September, but procrastinated on putting the finishing touches to it. Writing piled up, I got back on the road, hustled for (and procrastinated on) more commissions, worked through some niggling existential uncertainties, and never got to sending that letter off. It was a long digression on what I’d read and watched and listened to recently, which felt like something I wanted to share then and no longer feel the need to. So this is a rewritten letter: patchwork updates on what I’ve been thinking about, a few of those recommendations included. I should have sent it out at the turn of the new year, but I’ve never been good at coming up with sagely round-ups to mark momentous occasions. So here it is, filled with more questions than answers and hardly any resolutions.
After some time out from social media (not a case of detoxing, I’ve just been caught up in a little personal turbulence, and not all of it the bad kind), it feels nice to be back in touch. Thanks to everyone who reached out to my last letter—it seems to have moved quite a few of you. I hope you enjoy reading this one too, and that you’re off to an encouraging start for the year. ❤️
For a while, it seemed as if I would be spending Christmas and New Year’s in Morocco on my own (updates on Instagram) after my relatives left. I think I would have found a way to make it count, but in the end I felt I wanted to spend this festive season among friends. And I’m thankful I did.
In London, I stayed with one of my oldest friends and spent Christmas with him and his wife, and his brother and his brother’s kids—gathered round in solidarity in the glow of fairy lights and presents under the Christmas tree over the absence, for a time, of one of their own. For someone like me who still moves through the world with a certain degree of autonomy, with no real dependents, I admired my friend and his wife for taking on, so wholeheartedly and so cheerfully, some of the responsibilities of care for his young nephew and niece, especially so soon after they’d gotten married. It made me think about that line from Stephen Sonheim’s “Being Alive”—somebody force me to care / somebody let me come through—sung most recently by Adam Driver in Marriage Story. It made me think about how the emotional demands we ask of each other make our bonds, and about the things we do, and stepping up, for the people we love.
And then, again, Berlin: a city that speaks to me—and so many others! (I’ve bumped into quite a few strangers who all have an inspired story of why they moved to Berlin)—in a way that other cities haven’t in a while. I spent New Year’s Eve with a new friend, who had felt from the very beginning like an old friend, at a house party among friendly strangers. It reminded me of New Year’s Eve, 2017, when I was in Belfast travelling and working on a story, and went to a house party where I knew nobody else, but somehow ended the night huddled in a tight circle of new acquaintances, jumping up and down and belting it out to “Bohemian Rhapsody”—feeling a little removed, still, but glad to have been part of it for a moment. In Berlin, we ushered in the new year by lighting up billowy white lanterns, wishing on them, and releasing them into the black sky. One got stuck in the trees, twice, and the only thing left to do was laugh and pray that it wouldn’t burn down the park.
Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.
—James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room #
It feels like the question of where to be, where to commit to, has been the central dilemma of my life for the past few years. It feels like the dilemma from which flows other central dilemmas: What community to commit to? What projects to commit to? Perhaps, even, which self to commit to above all other selves? I feel the need to point out that this isn’t the same as being flaky. It’s more that I take making a commitment seriously—perhaps too seriously, in a way that can be paralysing and counter-productive.
My family and some of my oldest friends, as well as a sense of obligation—misplaced or not—to understanding one’s origins, tether me to Malaysia. And for the most part, that’s where I've been based, and where I’m still largely based. But my longing for adventure, for exploring the world and telling the stories of people not like me, and also, for a city that better expresses my inner desires, takes my head and heart elsewhere—though these days, the catalyst by which to plan working trips around seems to be weddings.
When I’ve been home for a while, I want to be away; when I’ve been away for a while, I want to be home. Every place ends up feeling like a stopover, albeit a long one, since I’m not the kind of traveller who enjoys being constantly on the move. I prefer, instead, to park myself somewhere for a while, so that it starts to approximate something like home. I grow into a semblance of a routine, and then it’s time to go again. This feeling has remained constant for much of my late twenties and early thirties, and I’ve never quite been able to disentangle myself from what feels like conflicting impulses. And I want to, I yearn for the clarity it would bring. And yet.
I talked about this with a close friend, not for the first time, before the end of 2019, over a late-night cheese murtabak at home in Kuala Lumpur. I was a little taken aback when he said, in not so many words, that it looked to him, in a way, like a lack of progress. Do one or the other, but do it unapologetically, he seemed to say. His remark stung a little, and I struggled to figure out if he was right, if one really had to choose.
I always just thought that I would naturally choose when something shifts, when a familial obligation, a career opportunity, or a special someone points the way. But more and more, I’m thinking that maybe it’s a decision I just have to make, and then the rest will fall into place. Or maybe I’m thinking about this all wrong, and nothing has to be a commitment, or permanent in any way.
A concept artist I met at the New Year’s Eve party in Berlin said that since he could mostly do his work from anywhere, he would be fine going anywhere. And if a place doesn’t work, he would just move on. But he stays put because his partner, also a concept artist, works differently from him. She feels the need to have a creative community around her to inspire and bolster her (and like so many others, found refuge in Berlin); he does not. And that made me try to think more honestly about myself and how I best do my work. I’m still figuring it out.
I visited this historic and still indefinable city only for the first time last year, and find myself happy to be here again. It’s now a strange familiar. I’m not sure what parts of it will stick, but I’ve begun to imagine myself a little more in it.
In the spirit of the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 last year, I read First Man, the Neil Armstrong biography by James Hansen. In fact, it was the movie that turned me on to it, though that didn’t seem to get much fanfare—probably because, I think, Ryan Gosling played Armstrong straight: the stoic man of very few words, whose inner life and motivations you could only guess at. But that was exactly what most fascinated me about Armstrong: this seemingly implacable man of science and engineering must also have had the poetry of the skies in him. When he was younger, he was apparently musically inclined. He joined the school orchestra and the glee club, acted in class plays and directed musicals. A passage from Hansen’s book:
The idea that such a non-whimsical man as Armstrong, as a young boy, dreamed of flight “intoxicated” [Norman] Mailer, “for it dramatized how much at odds might be the extremes of Armstrong’s personality.” On the one hand, consciously, Armstrong, the archetypal astronaut-engineer, was grounded in the “conventional,” the “practical,” the “technical,” and the “hardworking.” He resided at the very “center of the suburban middle class.” On the other hand, what Armstrong and the other astronauts were doing in space was “enterprising beyond the limits of the imagination.” Their drive and ambition simply had to have a subconscious element.
That made me think of another passage from—no relation—Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth (which I’d mentioned in an earlier letter), about how much science and imagination, and creativity, actually go hand in hand:
The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute; we often dismiss it as irrational and self-indulgent. But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective. The imagination of scientists has enabled us to travel through outer space and walk on the moon, feats that were once only possible in the realm of myth. Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of his world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.
It is, therefore, a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human brings have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’—a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology. The Neanderthals who prepared their dead companion for a new life were, perhaps, engaged in the same game of spiritual make-believe that is common to all myth makers: ‘What if this world were not all there is? How would this affect our lives—psychologically, practically, or socially? Would we become different? More complete? And, if we did find that we were so transformed, would that not show that our mythical belief was true in some way, that it was telling us something important about our humanity, even though we could not prove this rationally?
Since reading Armstrong’s book that first time, I’ve also been holding on to a thought about the pursuit of transcendence, posited as something humans inherently seek, which provides for the centrality of myths in our culture. That struck me particularly, because I feel like so much of what I try to do is to be “grounded”—i.e. down to earth, i.e. being of, and engaged with, this time and place—and I’ve been thinking about what it means, for me, to transcend. I’m not the most spiritual of people. I am not religious, I do yoga only for the exercise, and I’ve never felt any desire to experiment with ayahuasca-esque rituals or drugs, for instance. I do wonder why I’m not more curious.
But then, I realise: though I don’t seek to transcend this world, I do seek moments of transcending myself, to share in the human experiences of others through telling their stories—and, by doing so, better understanding what we call, for lack of a better phrase, the human condition. That’s also a kind of transcendence, right?
And yet, what of the personal? I read an essay a while back in which the writer (I can’t remember where I found it now) reflected on how travel had changed for him as he grew older: it was no longer so much about seeking out experiences for himself, but more about trying to understand a place. That’s certainly been very true for me, but I’ve been feeling lately like I need to re-address the balance and perhaps look inward a little more, put myself in the way of beauty for my own sake, travel in a more participatory way than as an observer always trying to find the next story to pitch.
Two passages from Amstrong’s book direct me to that end. And then, of course, there are the moments of transcendence you experience from great art—sometimes just an inflection of what already is, but enough that the world, for you, will never be quite the same again:
We still long to ‘get beyond’ our immediate circumstances, and to enter a ‘full time’, a more intense, fulfilling existence. We try to enter this dimension by means of art, rock music, drugs or by entering the larger-than-life perspective of film. We still seek heroes. Elvis Presley and Princess Diana were both made into instant mythical beings, even objects of religious cult. But there is something unbalanced about this adulation. The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation.
Mythology, we have seen, is an art form. Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever. The British critic George Steiner claims that art, like certain kinds of religious and metaphysical experience, is the most “ingressive”, transformative summons available to human experiencing’. It is an intrusive, invasive discretion that ‘queries the last privacies of our existence’; an annunciation that ‘breaks into the small house of our cautionary being’, so that ‘it is no longer habitable in quite the same way as it was before’. It is a transcendent encounter that tells us, in effect: ‘change your life’.
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And if you’ll let me, I may share your memos in my upcoming letters. Send them in!
Some things I wrote recently
“A ‘White Rajah’ returns to Malaysia’s Sarawak, but this time to serve” for South China Morning Post’s This Week in Asia magazine—I wish I could have expanded on more historical detail here, but this was meant to be a short piece. Will post some interesting nuggets from my interview with Jason Brooke in an upcoming letter.
“Coming of Age in Exile” as a special report for Between the Lines, a newsletter of Malaysian news founded last year by Marc Lourdes. There were outstanding interviews and other Rohingya youths I didn’t get to profile in this Public Radio International piece I did, and I found a home for them here.
I also have a piece in the second issue of Plates, a friend’s independent magazine on food culture, about how the indigenous Temiar in the forests of Gua Musang, Malaysia, are fighting against state authorities, loggers, and a durian plantation for the recognition of their ancestral land. It’s a more newsy report to complement the more literary take I did for the Virginia Quarterly Review last year.
Recommendations for everything
Amlou—A spread of roasted almonds, argan oil, and honey. Like peanut butter, but the one I had was more liquid, grainer, just better. I deeply regret not buying it by the jarfuls from Morocco!
An introductory Moroccan song list for the road—courtesy of our Moroccan tour driver, who played these songs on loop for a week straight! By the end, even my relatives were singing to Mok Saib (actually Algerian).
Jojo Rabbit by Taika Waititi—That Rilke poem I quoted at the beginning of this letter appears at the close of the film. It’s a batshit funny take on the holocaust by a Jewish director, with deeply moving moments between mother (played affectingly by Scarlett Johansson) and son. I was surprised I hadn’t heard much about the film (this was before it won Best Adapted Screenplay at the recent Oscars), and only ended up checking out the trailer because I wanted to go to the movies in Berlin and this was playing. There are criticisms that the movie encourages viewers to “look with benign empathy at Nazis”, but personally, I didn’t read it that way.
Minding the Gap by Bing Liu—Ostensibly a documentary about skateboarding, but really about three boys trying to become good men, navigating their personal relationships and turning to skateboarding as an emotional place of refuge from emotional and physical abuse. I was speaking of transcendence; there are clear moments of it in this film, which strikes a beautiful, elegiac tone. And this is the shot I remember most: a skateboard marked with the words: “THIS DEVICE CURES HEARTACHE”.
Jane by Brett Morgen—A Nat Geo documentary on Jane Goodall and how she came to be “the chimpanzee lady”. Featuring original footage from decades ago, you get to see Goodall when she was still so young, and already so dedicated to what she couldn’t then have known would be her life’s work. Incredibly inspiring.
Take turns to read a book out loud with a friend, as performatively as people who aren’t performers can muster! You experience it in a more companionable way. You might laugh at the same passage, snigger at the same, and wonder about some aspect of human nature together. Current squeeze: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner—Perhaps a little too hyped up in American media, but certainly a darn good read and worth your while for an exploration of one man’s psyche, how he sees the women in his life, and how they, in turn, see him. All that clumsy pursuit of sex and love and wanting what we think we want, this novel is very much of our moment.
Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love by Emily Witt—Published a number of years back, I’m coming late to this. The questions it asks are still relevant, though the attempted answers, the experiments, seem already to have been left behind by our culture. I stumbled upon it in one of my accommodations in Berlin.
‘Tis by Frank McCourt, but the audiobook—For a few good-intentioned weeks, I did half-hour runs on the treadmill (its hidden history as “atonement machines” in nineteenth-century British prisons is apt) every alternate day, and listened to this. McCourt reads his memoir himself in a delightful Irish accent that just transports you. For a taster, read an excerpt in the Audm app.
Babylon Berlin—Love the twenties and a good period drama? You’ll love this. German crime noir series set in the twilight of Weimar Berlin.
Smartphone necklace—I saw this on an acquaintance in Berlin and got one myself. Just gives me one less thing to think about when I’m on the go.
Seasalt Cornwall dresses—cut like vintage tea dresses, with pockets! Pretty good for travelling modestly in warm weather to take a break from the backpacker look.
“Not Gonna Get Us” by Amanda Lee Koe
“Click Here to Kill: The dark world of online murder markets” by Brian Merchant
“Semantic Drift” by Lionel Shriver
“Portrait of Our White Mother Sitting at a Chinese Men’s Table” by Jennifer Tseng
“The Wild West Meets the Southern Border” by Valeria Luiselli
This letter was written, in parts, to this song:
And now, signing off, following Valentine’s, with lines from Hanif Abdurraqib’s lovely piece on songs, memory, and break ups:
Percussion can be even the gentlest interruption. Here’s a concrete example I give: two people on the telephone, near the end of a conversation, when the line between them falls into the depths of soundlessness. Even one person saying the words “I love you” is percussive. All our affections, coming on the backs of drums.