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Record: A Page From Time

This piece was first written in June 2016 for a publication that ended up never getting produced. It’s been sitting in my drafts for a long time now, and I recently came across it again.
I am publishing it relatively unedited. As I get older, I come to love the person I am in all seasons in fuller and more tender ways. 2016 me was a real mood. The conversations I now have and hold continue to deepen and complicate but in publishing this piece as it was in the now, I want to remind myself that as with all kinds of knowledge, there’s always only more learning and reflecting to do.
I’ve also been in conversation lately with a lot of other graduate students and others who are working on and against curriculums for us and by us and my reading list continues to grow and grow and grow. I am always grateful for the people who come alongside with their brave living and share their abundance with me. So consider this post a bloom from a season of my life where I found myself standing on the edge of a field of wildflowers, overwhelmed by the scent of possibility, and humbled by the beauty I had not yet seen.

And you, too, will do the like; you who with this book in your white hand will sink back among the cushions of your armchair, and say to yourself, ‘Perhaps this may amuse me.‘”

Old Goriot, Balzac

This makes me think about my hand, which although relatively fair for a Southeast Asian, is definitely not a white hand. Then I think of all the nonwhite hands holding books, and all the nonwhite hands writing books, and I put Old Goriot away for a while.

Surely the triviality of the white hand in the text does not warrant my reaction! But it does. I am troubled.

The assumption of the white hand—and by extension a white reader— continues to plague literature.

This assumption has serious repercussions on who we expect literature to represent, and who we imagine literature is written for. This assumption leads to the isolation of the nonwhite reader, and normalizes a literary world full of white characters by keeping nonwhite representation under erasure.

I shy away from talking about my reading life in general. It’s too much work.

As a Chinese Southeast Asian graduate specializing in diasporic literatures, finding others in the community who understand, care or are working toward similar things in research is hard to come by. The intersectional contexts and political, historical frames that accompany any kind of conversation I undertake around decolonizing literature make it too tricky for a light social occasion, and too prickly for other relationships.

Systemic erasure of nonwhite writing is still the norm. POC writers, Indigenous writers and Black writers are pigeonholed into postcolonial reading lists and special classes, we are the minority, the alternative, the marginal.

At graduate school orientation, our new Masters cohort is introduced to different reading and study groups available within the English department. There are periods, themes and styles covered (short eighteenth AND long eighteenth century!!) but in the diverse offerings, nothing for the decolonizing English student.

No wonder there are so few nonwhite hands in the classroom.

As a kid, Enid Blyton tells me in a story that a nettle plant in a soft grip stings, but in a firm grip, will not hurt me. Decolonizing feels like walking through a nettle field and trying to pull everything out. It is the process of taking this stinging, painful problem into my hands with a bold ferocity.

But what happens if the nettle is so deeply rooted you eventually realize it’s connected to every other damn nettle in the field? How the hell do you pull something like that out?

I am learning to be the flower
instead of the rake, learning to stop
maiming my own viscera,
speak easy never, uproot, repent,

From “My religion is language” Terra Incognito, Adebe DeRango-Adem

When I think about decolonizing my book shelf, I think titles I pick out intentionally at bookstores; academics and the poets I actively follow; subject material and genres I favour; geographical locations these authors write from.

In my undergraduate studies, I try to circumvent the rigid rules of literary quotas that govern the classes we take as English students. To fulfill Canadian literature credits, I take Indigenous Literature. To fill British literature I take courses like 16th century feminist literature and postcolonial theory and literatures. I dig through course selections looking for deviations from the canon; I tread through Australian and New Zealand writing, African literatures, South Asian narratives.

This snowballs into a habit.

I start reading professor biographies, reading the Works Cited. I read epigraphs and dedications and thank yous, I follow up on footnotes.
This habit extends into the way I shop for new titles, the way I google recommended reading lists online, the types of literary events I go to, and the Twitter accounts I choose to follow.

My bookshelf swells with writers we might call peripheral: Queer Singaporean poets, Bilingual authors, Chinese comic artists, Taiwanese illustrator-poets, Non-white graphic novelists, Indigenous poets and writers, Asian theologians, local zinemakers, self-published Kickstarter collections.

I am told my research scope is “interesting”. Interesting maybe a stand-in for “rare”, “uncommon”, or “strange”.

I read a history unprecedented; a history burned; a history footnoted; a history of marginalia. This is decolonizing.

It always takes long to come to what you have to say, you have to
sweep this stretch of land up around your feet and point to the
signs, pleat whole histories with pins in your mouth and guess
at the fall of words.

From Land to Light On, Dionne Brand

When I hear Yunior in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I start thinking about the way a story is told, and how the voice speaking is itself a story. I think about the histories invoked in narrative, and which ones are privileged over others.
Decolonizing is so hard is because it is about problematizing assumptions. Every time I make an assumption, try to form a bit of a canon for myself, or imagine a perfectly decolonized bookshelf, I am forced to look at the margins and at the space just beyond my knowledge frame.

Who am I missing out on?
Who do I leave out in my ignorance?
Who am I excluding in my privilege?

In this way, my bookshelf keeps spilling out of itself. I pull out nettles and discover more about how nettles grow into each other; I become familiar with their root patterns.
I am now moving past narrow academic-speak into literary space where readers who think and speak in other languages engage with literature.
I am now thinking about readers who have tried the canon and found it dry, who cannot bring themselves to read Austen or Steinback but might be interested in a slim volume of poems by Cyril Wong, or who might feel something new from a  幾米(Jimmy) translation of Rainer Maria Rilke.

I am now holding close people who checked out of English years ago because the only narratives that were offered were Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway and then, just to be safe, The Joy Luck Club.

I don’t shy away from these problems anymore from helplessness or isolation because these conversations are necessary, valuable and important.
I often still feel helpless, but less alone.

Decolonizing is limitless because part of the process is imagining it anew. Unsurprisingly, this is what I think literature is.

Two Final Thoughts

  1. We can only imagine anew when we recognize what we have in our veins and our heart and our hands.
  2. We can better imagine when we know who is imagining with us. We read their visions to life.

Record: The Gorge And Its Skins

Over the last three years I’ve become increasingly attracted to earthy palettes and the kind of details they offer.

Recently, our family took a short excursion to the Elora Gorge about 2 hrs away from Toronto for a half day trail walk. It was early spring weather, slightly overcast and on the verge of rain. The forest in this type of season is mossy and broody, quiet in a contemplative way.

Reds were not a big part of my forest palette until I moved to the colder climes of Canada. Now they are an inextricable part of the seasonal landscape and linger long after the fall and winter. These days, I find myself seeking these tones whenever I’m in a wooded area.

I’m not sure what these textures are saying to me. Only that I feel drawn to their banal complexity and richness of detail. Maybe I am attracted to their quiet existence and natural / accidental births. It’s not a curiosity. I’m not drawn to asking questions about how they came to be. I think I’m just happy to have crossed paths with them as they are.

Record: Langkawi

Looking for a place to go on a short family vacation in Asia is about predicting the rain. That’s how we ended up foregoing a trip near my mother’s hometown in Eastern Malaysia (on the Bornean peninsula) in favour of the little island of Langkawi on the western side of the country, just a short (and I mean 15 minutes of cruising time) flight from Penang.

Before this trip, my only memory of Langkawi is a matching pair of shirts/shorts that Joanne and I had as children. I really didn’t have many expectations; I was here for the family.

Langkawi, like much of Southeast Asia is a strange mashup of all kinds of things. History inflects, erodes, builds and tears down in messy and complex ways. I always know what I’m getting-ish: the stray cats, the lizard calls, sudden rain, giant worms, glorious sunlight, simmering heat, lush foliage, entitled tourists, the noise of the street market, the smell of coconut and durian, green chilli.

But then things surprise me, like how loud and insomnia-inducing the lizard calls are, the crushed scorpion on the roadside, the cuteness of the Malay-owned B&B vs. its fierce chicken colony, how dark the roads are, a stranger dropping a starfish into our hands, the density of the mangroves, the knot in my hair after the seaspray from the mangrove tour, the ginger flower the tour guide asked me to eat…

It was a lovely little trip. Slow in pace, warm and gentle. Lots of Dutch Blitz with the family. Only a few mosquito bites. The food was mediocre so we made up for it in our 20-hour Penang stopover and ate nonstop. In short, it was exactly the kind of trip my family goes on.

Record: Golden State

Turns out Cali glow is a real thing, but California mythology is exactly that – mythology.

I went to visit some of my extended fam in-laws over the December break who live in San Fran, and had a chance to peek a preview at San Fran, LA and Murietta for almost two weeks.
Needless to say, urban textures and vegetation were my main interest after eating.

Whenever I arrive in a city whose mythology precedes it, my instinctual reaction is caution. What are truths, what are experiences, what are expectations, and what are rose-coloured lenses?

Because story and language are so fundamental to my experience of the world, I can’t help this self-awareness. “California” is a word that has become the stuff of legend. Golden as in desert. Golden as in Gold rush. Golden as in sunlight. Golden as in celebrity and fame.

As with everywhere else, mythology sustains dream, identity and belief. As with everywhere else, California is constructed from language.

So imagine me stopping to stare at a tree on the sidewalk, fascinated by the colouring, fascinated by the root structures, recognizing terrain and humidity and climate and realizing the desert is present.

What a welcome intrusion into my speculative wandering. The leaf round, the root gnarly, the tones dusty, the aloe thick. What a welcome intrusion into language. What a wonderful new language.

Desert is not an intuitive landscape in my mythologies. I am a child of the humid, tropical rainforest. But it feels familiar, and it intrigues me.

I’ll know I’ll be back for intimacy with the arid sun and the cold dunes.
I’m already pulling out the stories where sand is abundant.

Images taken on a road trip in California.

A Studio of One’s Own

I’ve been dreaming of studio space for a while now, having lost my personal workspace after moving in with my partner and our third housemate.
One becomes cognizant of how much effort tidying up requires and how nonsensical it is to tidy if one is not done when there is no designated table space to leave stuff lying around.

In short, my work life has been work quick and tidy up.

This month Abby and I (as jabs) finally took a leap and moved into a little space at Makeshift Studio. This decision was a natural extension of my personal decision to go out on a limb and spend more of 2019 working on my art instead of prioritizing community organizing and freelancing project after project, contract after contract.

As process-based workers, the two of us spend long hours together just repeating tiny little movements until our hands fail us. How can a physical space enable us to be our best and most comfortable selves while we do this work? Not only is it a reliable place to anchor my creative practice and time, the studio also offers me space to unfold in messy and wonderful ways.

Putting the space together made me reflect on the many moving parts that make up our craft. From the height of the table and chairs to the kind of tool storage we needed, every little detail impacted differently.
Co-constructing that space with another person who has different needs means that constant communication to figure out a solution that works for both of us is important.

Luckily Abby and I are not the arguing sort. We’ve been working together for too long.

As I unfold into my new studio space I am also reflecting on how much legitimacy I give my work. I find myself undervaluing or dismissing my labour far too often around my peers. Maybe I’m afraid they won’t understand, or that they have already made certain assumptions.

I don’t think a studio will change that. But at least, in a space built specifically for my work, there is no room (literally) to not take myself and my labour seriously. Space for my artist self reminds me that my artist self demands room too. I am grateful to finally be able to afford a bit of that in this season.

I’m excited to see what other confidences and questions this little studio nest will incubate. I’m excited to be inspired, to despair during production, to develop early signs of carpal tunnel while cutting deep into words and images and everything in between.
I’m excited to feel like an artist coming home.