In lieu of writing a new blog post about Israel's genocide of the Palestinian people, I have gone back into my earlier post from 25/10 of last year, and edited it. What I've written there is built on my experiences over the last three months, listening deeply to friends and relatives with ties to different cultures and countries (Palestine, Singapore, Germany, Malaysia, Somalia, Switzerland, Bangladesh, Israel, India, Turkey, Italy, the UK, Canada, the US and elsewhere) talk - or be unable to talk - about Israel's ethnic cleansing operation, which is now entering its fourth month.
May 2024 bring peace, power, and freedom to Palestine. But also to all of us who are using our minds and bodies to carry each other's pain around the world.
It's too much (and too publicly demoralizing) to post this on social media, so I'm going to write it here. But I feel like something in me has died over the past 47 days, watching the Israeli + Western governments' genocide of the Palestinian people unfolding in real time.
There is a part of me that is so shaken that it just cannot shut up. Because I am unable to stop grieving for the political system that I thought I lived in - and now know for certain that I have never, ever lived in, not even for one second in all my life thus far. I'm grieving for a fantasy that I had, basically, about how power distributes itself and circulates in the world. Maybe this fantasy came from growing up in Singapore, an authoritarian state where the prevailing ideology is that leaders are, by definition, benevolent and competent. Or maybe it came from the structure of my family, and my role within that structure. I don't know.
But something fundamental has shifted now, in my understanding of what lies within the realm of possibility. Because I have seen with my own two eyes how easily a people - any people, anyone deemed the enemy of the powers of the moment, an arbitrary people, even my own people, potentially - can be wiped out by a tiny group of leaders who don't see others as equal beings. Even as the majority of humanity agitates with all their might against it.
That's all I want to write. I don't have anything smart to say about this, but I want to make it known that I feel it. I will probably feel it until the day I die, and it will probably live inside every piece of art or writing that I make from now on. That's all.
* I would like to say that I have gone back into this text, 3+ months into the ethnic cleansing operation and genocide in Gaza, to edit it - particularly the section about the universality of genocides across humanity's recent history, and the need to challenge Israel's narratives of exceptionalism. My feelings are constantly evolving, and I am trying to keep the writing as true as possible to what I feel, as I learn.
My heart and brain are breaking over what is happening in Gaza right now. And the weird thing is that to cope with it, I've found myself wanting to play old songs from my Christian past on my guitar, these last few days. This was low-key confusing to me because a) I am not a Christian anymore, and no longer believe the Zionist-leaning teachings that I once used to, and b) I haven't gone to a church in over 10 years, so my knowledge of popular Christian music is probably quite lame to current Christians (stuck at Hillsong).
Anyway, at first I wasn't sure why I kept feeling the compulsion to sing these old songs. Also, I felt a twinge of residual weirdness/embarrassment about it because my husband - who I only met after I stopped being religious - had not really witnessed this side of me in full. And I was like... do I really want him to see how many 4-chord songs I know by heart?? But anyway, after a few days of getting into the music, I feel like I've arrived at an explanation of why I needed to do it.
I needed to sing the old songs to remember - in a time where my feelings are running particularly high - that the Other is not out there in the world, as a thing to reject and smear and direct immense amounts of hatred towards. It feels uncomfortable to admit this. But the Other is in me, actually. In some ways, it IS me - is a part of me that I can bring up every once in a while, and still have genuinely strong feelings of connection and gratitude towards, even though I no longer identify with it.
I feel like when there is so much heat and strong feeling in the news/on social media at the moment, it can feel easy for me to forget this principle more generally. That Others - other people who I disagree with - are people, and not just names... not just figures, not just their worldviews, or their cultures, or even their identities. As long as someone is speaking authentically from their body and their heart - rather than from overidentification with a self that they were told they should have - then there is something there that it is possible to connect to. There is something there that is an "I", that I can reach out to and touch with the "I" that is within me, too.
The Other is inside all of us, I guess. Maybe that's what I'm trying to say, at a more abstract level.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but as I've been reading the news these last few days, I keep thinking about how forgetting that is the first and last step towards terrible atrocity. That move that can happen so gradually and quietly - where the "I" gets stripped from another person's identity, in your mind - it can be a source of such unspeakably great evil, no matter what direction the gesture is pointed in. And it's been pointed at many human beings before, across time and space. In the region of the world where I come from, too - e.g. the anti-Chinese massacres that drove my grandfather out of his village in Indonesia, as a young boy. Under the postcolonial New Order government - a few decades after the round of massacres that my grandfather survived - up to 2 to 3 million more Chinese people were ethnically cleansed by the Indonesian state and its actors, over the span of 2 years.
And on the one hand, it's true that something of a similar scale, intensity, and brutality has happened to Jewish people within Europe. But with all due respect (and without minimising anyone's tragedy, my grandparents' or theirs), I believe that the emotional turn that needs to happen from this terrible historical experience is not for any one group of people to then feel unusually at-risk and exceptional. This way of thinking - which Israel and its supporters are currently leaning on heavily - is A) painful and lonely for the soul to bear, and B) lets us excuse ourselves for becoming the perpetrators of similar dehumanization, towards the most vulnerable sub-groups in our midsts. It lets us think "I could never do that. So what I and my people are currently doing - it must be something else."
No. The message to take from our ancestors' immense suffering is that genocides are universal - cutting across all races and religions and cultural backgrounds. And they have happened to many, many people. Stories about genocide from outside Europe are deliberately underreported when they don't align with the US' imperial interests, and hence dangerously (I would say) underrepresented in the West's imagination. But the fact of the matter is that if you open your eyes and expand your worldview even a little bit, you will see that countless people's grandparents across all cultures and continents have been subjected to this same kind of dynamic in recent history - of being othered and slaughtered mechanically, indiscriminately, and terrifyingly based on the colour of their skin. Or their surnames, or their religion, or their culture; the languages they spoke, or the food they ate or didn't eat at home. In Asia alone, I can think of the Burmese under Ne Win and the local Indians, the Indonesians and the Chinese, the Laotians and Hmongs, the Cambodians and the Chams, the Hindus/Sikhs and the Muslims on either side during partition... mass murders and forced labour and designations of "human animals" all round. I'm sure that the list would go on endlessly into ten paragraphs, if I continued - for all continents and all races of people around the globe.
Genocides happen. For all their evil, they are a part of the human experience; almost no one's lineage is exempt. And any culture, at any given time, can play the role of the perpetrator or the victim - nobody is too good or pure to lapse into the role of domination, and no one is too strong or unassailable to end up being the one under persecution. And you know what - I feel like it's SO important for me to keep talking about this, even if it offends certain people and makes them deeply uncomfortable. Because the point is that we are all one humanity standing together, united in our experiences of fear and pain as potential victims - but also united in our potential capacity to do harm ourselves, under bad leadership. We have to accept that the both these potentials - to dominate and be dominated - lie dormant in every single human heart, including our own. And when I look at the Zionist rhetoric that is currently flooding our news channels, what I see is a group of people who have been completely unable to accept the presence of this duality within themselves.
It's difficult to accept that one (or the people one loves) could be genocidal. But it's a necessary turn we will have to come to, for this absolutely evil extermination of the Palestinian people to stop. Several of my close friends and acquaintances are Jewish, if not Israeli. And now, in this time of absolute necessity, I feel deep hope when I look at those among them who have been able to stand with the collective experiences of humanity around the globe - rather than buying into this false narrative that any one person or community's pain makes them isolated and unique. It is so important to be able to sidestep the lure of pure victimhood like this - to be able say that right now, the dehumanization that human beings periodically inflict on one another is being pointed at someone else, and I see it, happening at a truly horrifying intensity and rate. I am not okay with it. Because we are one across all cultures, and we feel for each other; we must help to carry each others' pain.
Truthfully, I feel too sad and angry to really articulate my thoughts as clearly as I could be doing. I'm going to go to the Ceasefire Now march this Saturday, in London. And will probably cry in the crowd again as I did last week, while thinking of my friends who live in the region - many of whom are Christian Palestinians. And who - even if they survive this conflict - will almost certainly still have to suffer in different ways for many, many years going forward, from the unchecked violence currently being perpetrated against Gaza by a military, apartheid state, with the support of the world's leaders.
What a terrible time it is to be alive.
It makes me so happy to be able to write this post: I have a book coming out next year!!! THE STORY GAME: A MEMOIR, will be out in the US and Canada from Tin House Books on 21 May 2024!
Although I'm only able to announce it today, I've actually been on this journey for a couple of months now. Since the start of August, I've working really speedily and intensely behind the scenes with my amazing editor, agent, and the Tin House team - polishing up the book, brainstorming publicity strategy, selecting a beautiful cover, etc. Sometimes when I have a free moment, I still catch myself thinking that I can't believe this is all happening, and so quickly too. I can't believe the rate at which I'm having to learn and transform - in my career, but also just generally as a human being. Trying out new ways of relating with others, moving through fear, taking new risks.
What a wild thing it is to publish a book, man. What an act of pure and scintillating hope. To take something so deeply private and give it a face, a voice, a personality - to insist that it deserves to take up all the space it needs, and be seen and known by many other people. For me, it feels like having to hold my breath, and take a leap of faith over and over again. Believing that I will be met with love there, in the world outside the room of my own mind, and outside the controlled environment of the pages I have created. In the flurry of the last few weeks, I've often found myself coming back to this Pau Vallvé cover of Bjork's song, and singing the words aloud to myself as a kind of reminder:
You'll be given love / You'll be taken care of
You'll be given love / You have to trust it
Maybe not from the sources you have poured yours
Maybe not from the directions you are staring at
... All is full of love.
In many ways, this book represents a series of risks I am taking, in search of the love and connection I've always believed must exist. There's a lot of fear there, but also a lot of joy in discovery and having old instincts proven wrong. I wonder if this is what it feels like for other authors too! Like the path to somewhere new is here - somewhere different, somewhere I've always heard stories about, but never seen with my own eyes- and I want to keep walking down it to see where it goes.
I haven't posted in ages! Partly it's because so much is happening for me, at the moment. But also, I've been working a lot on are.na recently. A friend introduced me to the platform over the summer, when we were at an online writing residency together - and I've found it such a useful way of keeping track of all the quotes, images, and influences that are going into the foundational stage of my second book.
I'm an extremely obsessive person by nature - as well as a really slow digester/processor/metaboliser, who spends a good chunk of every day thinking about things that happened ten or fifteen or twenty years ago. This is probably why I enjoy writing memoir so much - or rather, need to write it to stay plugged in. Anyway, the thing is that when I'm working on a project, I feel like I start seeing parts of it in every single text I watch or read - the outside world pretty much ends up conforming to whatever's going on inside my brain. And are.na is perfect for keeping track of the ways in which that happens - the ways in which the external world can morph or shapeshift, to elucidate concerns I don't have the exact words or knowledge for yet.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the role played by the other in my creative process. "The Other", I guess - I feel weird capitalising it like this, but this is what I mean, in the Lacanian (?) sense of the term. I wrote The Story Game more or less within the constraints of my own mind - and to some extent, within the constraints of my own referential system. And the book needed that - it wanted it, because it was an exploration of the coping mechanisms a person can come up with to deal with extreme loneliness. But this new book - this second book - I think it wants something else. It wants an Other in a different way than the first book did. Something like... it needs other people in order to be written, in order to find its way. It needs that feeling that working on are.na gives me - "my mind is everything, my mind is the whole world". But it also needs something else - something that comes from the outside to unsettle the inside, in the way that a single line of dialogue from another person can instantaneously unsettle the entire world of assumptions you've built up inside your own head, about who they are and what they want.
I don't really know where I'm going with this, or what it'll lead to. But I feel like it's worth recording the feeling here so that I can look back on it in the future.
Doing some editing today; thinking about how vulnerability and imperfection can serve as the motors of a narrative journey.
(The first piece is by Joël Andrianomearisoa.)
Haven't written anything on here in a while. Lately I've been feeling like if I have something to say, then I want to say it on social media - which is surprising to me, since there was a time in my life when I didn't do social media at all. But it feels like there is some kind of emotional muscle I want (or maybe need?) to build at the moment, that only ever gets activated under the pressure of public scrutiny. Something like: learning how to sit with the shame of saying or sharing too much. Or maybe something like: learning how to metabolise the nervousness that comes with growing and learning in front of other people, rather than in private.
There's this anecdote that's kind of embarrassing but it keeps coming back to my mind at the moment, so I'm going to share it. When I was in primary school, I used to have a blog not dissimilar to this one. I've forgotten a lot about those years of my life (see: my memoir). But I remember that blog well because it was where I escaped to, to narrate my life - which made it feel like one of the few places where my life was actually happening to me, and not just through me.
I wrote on that blogspot page nearly every day. And I didn't really think too much about anyone else when I was doing it. I knew that people were visiting because - this being the early 2000s - I had one of those little chat boxes on the side of the page where people could leave comments like "kewl blog" or "*p0ke*" or whatever else we liked to say to each other, back in those days of Singaporean lianspeak. No one ever really commented on my writing though. So I don't think I understood that there was much of a link between the chat box (friends, socialization, the world) and my blog itself (self, personal, very often confessional) until one day, when I came home from school, and saw that the chat box had been completely flooded by almost fifty comments from my classmates arguing about how I had used the word "cum" as textspeak shorthand for "come", in one of my blog posts.
In hindsight, I feel like the fact that this upset people as much as it did is quite funny - because of course we were all primary schoolers who had not yet had sex, and it is likely that the people who were mad at me had only very recently learnt what the word "cum" meant themselves. But in that moment, I felt like I wanted to die. I will never forget the feeling of sitting there in my spinning desk chair, reading each and every one of those fifty comments, and experiencing the specific shame of being shouted at in all-caps by a troop of very moralistic, angry, and self-righteous 10-year-old boys (who, incidentally, were also the sorts of people who would never have dared to approach me at school). It felt like someone was pouring boiling hot water down my throat. Even more so because the all-caps shouting was, occasionally, punctuated by comments from other classmates whom up to that moment, I didn't even realise were readers of my blog. But here they all were now, leaping out of the woodwork to excitedly defend me, or otherwise just do the verbal equivalent of munching popcorn and ogling.
I don't remember how I dealt with this whole incident after reading through the chat box - knowing my younger self, I suspect that I simply cleared out the comments, changed my spelling back to "come", and acted like nothing had happened. I was well-liked enough at school that my reputation (and my pride) survived. But what I took from the whole thing was this very interesting feeling that I continue to live with all the time now, as an adult writer: the mix of pleasure plus fear that comes with being seen by other people. On the one hand, it made me feel very triumphant - almost exultant - to realise that so many people were invested in reading my blog and shouting at each other about its contents. But on the other hand, the frisson came with this almost unbearable edge of anxiety attached - this feeling that at any moment, all the pleasure of being seen might turn sour, and lash out into a communal, vengeful act of punishing me for missteps.
I think that in many senses, my whole writing career since then has been about finding new ways to process the two sides of this feeling, and sit with it. I feel like I'm always looking for ways to turn this fear of public shaming into something generative ("I will write more, I will exist more, I will be more present and public in spite of you") instead of limiting ("I don't want you to judge me or use me as a mirror to see your worst self, so I will be small and quiet and never write again"). I don't really know where I am going with this post. Maybe I'm using it to think through what it will feel like to have a career that involves becoming more and more visible, if all goes well with selling my book this year. As an author, I'd like to become someone who's good at sitting with gross emotions - who can feel difficult feelings or make mistakes and grow in public ways, and so free others to do the same. I feel like that's one of services that a good memoirist provides for their readers, actually. And I still have a ways to go.
All day long, my mind has been coming back to this poem by Czeslaw Milosz -
- and I don't quite know why. Maybe it's because we've been discussing our nonfiction picks at Sundog this week - and so many of the ones that we're considering, this round, happen to be about death and loss. At our editorial meeting last night, we were talking about how loss always ends up being such a dominant theme in this particular genre. And also marvelling at how different writers use totally different tools to cope with the universal human experience of pain. Some people use white space or distance, some people use volubility or humour, others use precision and control... there must be a thousand different ways to do this work, of transmuting feelings that are too hot to hold into something knowable, or at least describable, again.
I wonder if I keep thinking about this poem because of my querying journey as well! I don't want to say too much about it, because processes are still underway. But the main thing is that increasingly, I am grappling with the realisation that my book really could be out of my hands one day, somewhere in the world. Right before I started querying, I experienced a few initial waves of grief related to this knowledge, which really surprised me. And the feeling sometimes echoes on inside me, even now - alongside all my excitement and happiness - as the future becomes more real.
I suspect that I am writing this blog post because I am trying to make that leap that Milosz describes, in the very last line of the poem - from sorrow to wonder, in the process of letting go. Maybe sorrow is about looking backwards at what has been, and at all that can be known for sure, because it has already been experienced. E.g. the past 4 years of writing my book, the parts of my life that I've managed to tell a story about. Whereas wonder is about looking forwards, at something beyond the periphery of the known world ("where are they going?")... something in the darkness of the "after", that you might not have the exact words for yet. I wonder what that would look like for me! I would like to keep my eyes out there, on the darkness - on all the possibilities that are the antidote for sorrow.
There's probably so much more that I could write about this topic, but that's enough for today. In the coming weeks, I'd like to revive my old Substack again to do a book or story review - I feel the energy for that task rising. I'll post again here, when it happens.
It's a lovely sunny London morning to be indoors blogging! But this morning I woke up with a thought on my mind, about the very first thing I ever published.
The first piece of writing that I ever published in a journal was this essay in berfrois, that I wrote when I was like 19 or 20 or something (if you scroll all the way to the end of the post, you'll see that I still looked like a baby - I still had the bangs that I used to have back in junior college in Singapore). It was an essay where I read the work of two artists, Gertrude Stein and Sebastião Sagaldo, side by side, and talked about issues of framing... and for a long time, thinking about this essay used to make me feel somewhat uncomfortable.
Inexplicably so, perhaps - since the writing itself is by all accounts pretty solid. But for a long time, the feelings were there, and I struggled to find a satisfactory explanation for them. In fact, when I was building this website two years ago, I struggled enormously to include this essay in my list of publications... wasn't it too pretentious? Too preening and bombastic? I had written this piece as part of a mentorship programme, back in Singapore, that wasn't a very good fit for my emotional needs as an artist at the time. And for a long time, I wondered if my bad feelings were somehow tied to what I made of the programme.
I've written on here before that for me, the temptation has always been to erase the past from my own artistic record, and present myself like a person who has always been fully formed - instead of as someone who has had to grow over many years, and discover what works/doesn't work for them. So it really amazes me to see that now - aged 30~ and finishing my first book - my mind has come back to this first baby-steps essay about Sebastião Sagaldo again. The core themes of the memoir that I have spent the past 4 years making - control, power dynamics, the complexities of the author-character relationship in a piece of literature or art - they were all there to begin with, in the very first thing that I hesitantly tried to put out into the world. It makes me think about this tweet that I recently saw, from the author E.J. Koh, where she says:
And that's something that feels important for me to hold onto - as a person who, generally, tries as hard as possible to run away from their past and past selves. Realising that I've come back to the very beginning again, after years and years of going on a journey - it puts me in mind of that famous Louise Glück quote where she says that people only look at the world once, in childhood, and the rest is just memory. Beginnings are important! In some ways, I'm starting to understand, maybe they are all that there really is.
Over the last few weeks, revisions for my memoir have really kicked into high gear. I've been getting feedback from beta-readers, solving the last few structural puzzles of the book by going back to old feedback from workshop groups and friends again... and I can feel that the book is becoming more and more like its final, finished self. Originally I wanted to start querying before the end of the year, but I'm starting to feel differently now that I realise that waiting can give me a chance to bring other people into the process, so that I feel like I'm not alone. Honestly, I never thought I'd be the kind of person to say this - but I would pick the feeling of having a community of fellow writers over the thrill of being first and fastest, any day. Ending off with another quote-tweet that I think expresses the feeling (or at least my own aspirations) better than I ever could:
It's been a hectic summer, and I haven't felt the urge to write here at all until today. I was going to do some general updates about new positions started, new activities I'm involved in... but I think that actually those belong properly on social media, not here.
Some big news is that I've started new editorial positions at Sundog Lit and Exposition Review - two lit journals that I absolutely love, because they publish the kind of work that makes me feel happy to be alive and reading. Submissions open soon for both - and if you're reading this (and a writer), I hope that I'll get to see you in the queue!
What I really feel like doing is taking stock of things for a minute, writing-wise.
I finished writing my book two weeks ago, on a very warm Sunday. I could feel - deeply and with absolute certainty - that the book was finished, in the sense that it had finally managed to become the thing that it wanted to be all along, in its bones. It isn't polished yet, of course - there are still lots of loose ends that need tucking away. But fundamentally the book now exists in the world, and is entirely itself. Which is an incredible and magical thing for me to think about, after almost four years of writing. I felt so light and airy on the day I finished.
Since then, though, something strange has been happening to me. Not many people talk about what it feels like in the weeks right after you finish writing a book, so I don't know if this is how it goes for everyone. But for me, what I feel is the return of a much older version of myself. This version of myself tends towards self-critical, with a sharp eye for her own flaws, and an overdeveloped ability to articulate how and why the things she makes might be broken.
It's surprising to me, actually, that this part of me still exists! I thought that at some level it had been eradicated by the last year and a half of my life, when I felt more creativity and joy than I've ever felt as an adult. I feel like the next lap of my book journey is going to be about learning how to coexist peacefully with this inner critic - without letting her overpower me - so that I can rely on her keen eye during the next few stages of editing.
And so far it's been a struggle! I can feel that there is a part of me that wants it all to be over quickly - that wants to just chuck the whole thing off to some higher authority, like an agent or publisher, so that I don't have to keep facing myself in revisions. In one of my favourite recent essays about the writing life, Carmen Maria Machado describes something a little similar - where new writers sometimes give in to the urge to "go pro" too early, almost as a shortcut from doing the necessary work that their book requires of them. This feeling - it is real, and I feel it. I'm also glad that essays like this one exist, to help me fight my own impatience and know that I'm not alone.
Let's see how things go.