Findings, vol. 3
A digest of recent letters, readings + joy, wherever it can be found.
Hello, I’m Emily, and this is a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a rapidly changing world & our personal and collective place in it.
Friends & readers,
It’s a strange contradiction: the last months of 2023 have felt so full, and yet, idle at the same time? Full with reunions back on W.C.’s side of the world and the traveling required to get to friends and family, recovering from flu-like symptoms twice (the second bout Covid), and using all the time in between not dedicated to the everyday architecture of life to read, dream, plan, agonize, write. I felt like I never had enough time but also like I had days ahead of me. It had a lot to do with all the activity going on in my head: a constant churn—because of what’s still happening in Gaza; because I feel like I’m at another crossroads, feeling a desire to shift into a different gear, trying to determine exactly what and how.
Meanwhile, I’m back in KL. But aside from frequenting a cafe for lunch, I’ve been keeping my solitude eating, sleeping, reading, and writing. I’ve just emerged from the after-effects of Covid (they lingered this time) and jetlag, each seemingly made worse by the other. But the cloud has lifted, and I’m looking forward to getting back into the balmy rhythm of life here again: taking my dogs to the park, catching up with friends and family, revisiting old haunts and exploring new parts of the city and the rest of the country, learning again—always, over and over again—how to belong back to it.
So, this letter feels less like a start to 2024, more like a cap on 2023. There’s some rethinking I need to do so I can move along, but I’ll see you here again soon.
It’s crazy to me how this letter, written in November, remains relevant:
After watching the film, I was still uncertain as to the exact nature of Oppenheimer’s distinction. Why was he appointed to lead the Manhattan Project? I picked up the biography that inspired Nolan to find out, and it turned out to have some lessons, I think, for writers too…
Simply: good food was a joy, a gift, from the people who made it, and I felt no need to demystify it. When I was a child, my father would grin and point out the uncle perspiring through his thin shirt at our favorite nga choy gai stall in Ipoh—serving poached chicken and blanched beansprouts, with kway teow soup—and say, See, how he puts his sweat into it? That’s the secret sauce that can’t be replicated. Every time, I knew that was a lie but I would nod and laugh. I was happy just to marvel, and dig in.
These days, that has changed for me, as I sense it has for others too. First, a percolating awareness that how we eat directly impacts our warming planet as the climate crisis began to lead the news agenda, then bulldozed into one’s daily consciousness when the pandemic hit and restaurants and supply chains faltered, thrusting concerns about our food security and long-held assumptions about how we eat into the spotlight.
Dear readers, being able to take you with me, every step of the way, means a great deal. Please sign up if you would like to receive more letters like this in your inbox and to support my writing and curiosity. You can also make a paid subscription. Thank you!
I was just combing through my bookshelves again—fair to say I do that every time I come home—and found this True Story piece, published in print by the same people at Creative Nonfiction magazine (not sure what’s going on there these days) a while back, which I loved. As the name says, each issue features just one true story: Where am I? by Heather Sellers.
This piece is about how she struggles, really struggles, to find her way due to an inability to read her physical and spatial surroundings—linked perhaps to her face blindness? but maybe also the way she grew up?—and her attempts to cope with it. She also writes movingly about how she learns to grant herself the same compassion she so generously bestows on others with similar difficulties.
I don’t struggle to the same extent but I am sympathetic to her troubles because I can find it difficult to find my way around without a map. I don’t do as well with verbal directions; I insist on an address so I can map out my route—even in the days before GPS; even when, for a long time, people like my parents were more inclined to use landmarks for directions and didn’t necessarily even know street names. If I’m not visiting a place regularly, I’ll soon forget how to get there, even if I once spent every day frequenting it for a year. If someone diverts me onto an alternative route to someplace I’ve been, I’ll likely get disoriented and lose my bearings. By contrast, a cousin of mine could direct our grandparents to his kindergarten when he was just five years old. So, maybe it’s really not about one’s awareness per se, but that our brains are wired differently, mysteriously? Or okay, maybe I just spent too many of my formative years sticking my nose into books in moving vehicles…😁 Anyway—
Way-finding requires ongoing effort, practice, review. Some humans are excellent navigators because they automatically perceive and process visual clues provided by objects and landscapes. Others don’t rely as much on space and geometry; they create a holistic landscape out of stories, feelings, and memories in order to understand, access, and execute a route. Some people “just know” how to get across campus and back to their car. I have very limited abilities in any of these realms, but I have developed another set of skills.
I know how to remain calm. I know how to ask questions. I have my paperwork in order.
Currently reading: Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital by. I’ve been to South Korea only once on a family trip, years back. That, aside from having an appetite for Korean food and watching Autumn in My Heart—it seemed like the entry-level K-drama when I was a teenager?—and more recently watching Bong Joon-ho’s movies, I’m not too familiar with Korean culture; much of what I know of it are stereotypes, especially as it pertains to plastic surgery and the imperative pursuit of beauty. Picked this book up because it felt like it would be illuminating as to whether those generalizations are true…
Currently listening to: The Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham, read by Vanessa Kirby, which I put on every night before bed, setting the timer to 30 minutes—usually falling asleep before that 😅. I love audiobooks! Especially when read by performers with a certain timbre of voice that evokes a mist of mystery (Kirby’s really matches this material), but they help put me to sleep. Because see, without someone else’s voice in my head, mine keeps running, which keeps me awake. Also: I find Wyndham’s stories particularly conducive as audiobooks. I had read him before, but the first time I listened to him (well, Stephen Fry) was The Midwich Cuckoos, during my first round of Covid two years ago. Recuperating from Covid really is most conducive to listening to audiobooks.
The short-fiction pile-up: As I’m trying to complete a short story I started a couple of years ago, in the name of experimenting, I’m trying to read more of them. I tend to be bad at finishing short story collections, picking and choosing from them piecemeal, hopping between them. For now, I’m shuffling between The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser, The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (translated by Jay Rubin), Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, and Malaysian writer Shih-Li Kow’s new collection, Bone Weight and Other Stories. I’m trying to read them more intentionally, a project greatly helped by reading’ newsletter too.
Added to the queue:
For paid subscribers: At the end of this letter, you'll find an appendix of my brief (and non-exhaustive) 2023 round-up of books and films.
In previous newsletters, I’ve occasionally posted a shout-out to friends or people who have contributed in some way to Movable Worlds. Most recently,, a Chinese-American writer and editor—I spoke with him a couple of years back about his life and work and English translation of Sanmao’s Stories of the Sahara for Movable Worlds—just got himself a book deal for his debut novel, Masquerade, to be published by Tin House Books in 2024 🥳 Congrats Mike!
As I mentioned, I’ve been decluttering my bookshelves a bit since I got back, and I found a few books and magazines I’d like to pass on. I once accidentally made a duplicate order online and was unable to send them back; and there are some books I don’t think I’ll ever go back to re-read, and not necessarily because I didn't enjoy them.
So, a book giveaway – but, at present, only for readers based in Malaysia (sorry!) as I’ll be sending it out by post. First up: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It'll be dispatched to whoever registers their interest first by email.
So happy to be reunited with our dogs! Here’s the more manageable of the two (only because she’s smaller), which means she gets more photos 💛
Until the next,
Beyond this line: an appendix for paid subscribers.