May 30, 2022 • 1M

Landmarkings #12

A roving round-up of essays, journalism, and fiction about how we make sense of a rapidly changing world and our place in it, and how we tell its stories.

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Appears in this episode

Emily Ding
Notes and readings on how we “see” the world and tell our stories. (This section, however, has been phased out. I will still write the kinds of things I’ve written about here, but I will now do so as part of the Wayward vertical.)
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Press play for a brief reading of a passage from Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel:

In Wintu, a language of ancient California, there are no words for right and left: speakers differentiate between riverside and mountainside, from a time when it was taken as a given that you would live your life and bear children and die in the landscape where you and your parents and your great-great-grandparents had been born. A language that would disintegrate at sea, or while travelling beyond either the river or mountains; go beyond the boundaries and there would be no reference points, no words to describe the landscape you moved through—imagine the unfathomable cost of leaving home.


Passing through the coastal town of Lumut on a short road trip, Malaysia.

Making sense of the world & our place in it

Taiwan’s Han Chinese seek a new identity among the island’s tribes, by Lily Kuo, Alicia Chen, and Lam Yik Fei:

“I have been completely naturalized. I’d say I am from this tribe,” Li said. “I am Indigenous in spirit, even if not by blood.”

Li is one of an increasing number of young Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in Taiwan, who in recent years have fully immersed themselves in one of the island’s Indigenous cultures—spending days exploring the ancestors’ routes through the mountains, hunting and taking part in festivals and ceremonies.

The growing identification with Taiwan’s Indigenous communities comes amid a revival of Indigenous culture and a renewed emphasis on Taiwan’s Austronesian roots—trends that undercut Beijing’s claims to the island, which it says is an inalienable part of China.

From Niger, How farmers in Earth’s least developed country grew 200 million trees, by Katarina Höije, Craig Welch, David Rose, and Sven Torfin—about how, sometimes, the solution is simply to desist from doing what we have always done:

Since 1981, Rinaudo, a young missionary from Australia, had been in Maradi trying in vain to plant trees. He knew they would cool the air by emitting moisture, provide shade, and potentially help crops. But planting trees was taxing, and the new ones mostly died before their roots could reach the water table, which was dozens of feet deep. Local farmers, facing crisis, had little interest in waiting around years for baby trees to blossom into something useful. “They were more concerned with growing food,” says Rinaudo.

One day, Rinaudo spotted a desert bush, a fresh new stem emerging from a cut stump. Something clicked. “I’d observed cut trees regrowing before,” he says. “But it just connected it for me—all these stumps can become trees again.”

The Magic of Alleyways, by Will di Novi and Zoe van Dijk:

Flocks of manic songbirds squabbled in the bushes. Hunchbacked trees dangled fragrant purple fruit, luring hungry pedestrians and voracious raccoons. And because of the alley’s seclusion within the heart of the city, it offered a space where people escaped to be their most intimate selves. Dad rock-loving yuppies jammed out in their Volvos. Homeless can collectors paused to whisper prayers. At night, I witnessed the surreptitious butt-taps of couples in love.

This was a microcosm, the city in miniature, and it defied my assumption, reinforced by the stabbing and countless Hollywood films, that alleys were hostile spaces. The setting I observed and started documenting—first in frantic iPhone notes, then a formal diary—was something more inviting, and so much more complex: a vibrant public commons, a backstage in what urbanists call the “theatre of city life.”

Three prodemocracy activists on the run from Beijing, three wild and bizarre journeys to—and through—America, by Timothy McLaughin and Adams Carvalho:

Hong kong was long a magnet for people seeking opportunity and running from persecution. Residents of mainland China fleeing the violence and political purges of the Cultural Revolution swam toward the city’s lights—Tommy’s grandmother among them. In the late 1970s, thousands packed into ships, many of which were cramped wooden fishing boats, to escape to Hong Kong from Vietnam as that country’s war ended. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, student activists from China snuck into Hong Kong.

Now the fleeing has reversed, as Beijing’s crusade to strip Hong Kong of its defining freedoms has created a wave of exiles.

Saving the Sounds of an Ancient City — I have, for the longest time, been talking about wanting to go to Cairo. I keep putting it off, hoping I’ll manage to learn a little Arabic before I go. I guess that will take a while yet. Anyway, here’s my immersive armchair introduction: a compilation of photographs set to sounds, built on the recordings of Youssef Sherif and Nehal Ezz.

Overwhelmed by the chaos of older neighborhoods, many residents who can afford it are moving to modern, quieter compounds on the outskirts of the current capital—seeking relief from congestion, traffic and, yes, noise.

This migration looks to dramatically remake the city’s soundscape in the years to come.


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Something to think about

Jan Dutkiewicz asks: Should We Be Breeding Pigs Just for Their Hearts?

Ethically speaking, the use of animals for medical purposes is thorny. While eating animals prioritizes humans’ gustatory pleasure (your love for bacon) above animals’ interest in not experiencing pain or being killed, leading many ethicists to consider it unethical except in particular contexts, the medical question changes the stakes, weighing the life and suffering of both currently existing and future humans against the life and suffering of animals. If a medicine can save many humans, is it not worth killing some lab mice or beagles to get there? If pigs’ hearts can save people dying on organ waiting lists, is it not worth killing some pigs and baboons?


Drawn to these rickety jetties.

How we make sense of the world & tell its stories

From Malaysian artist Sharon Chin:

A couple of years ago I was invited to apply for a government-funded art residency to Antartica. An artist’s dream: explore the farthest ends of the world, and make art about it. I turned it down, because I’ve seen how art is used as the initial, “soft” strategy in staking claim on a territory. Antartica has vast reserves of oil and gas, and the world’s largest stores of fresh water. In the coming years, as the climate crisis deepens, we’ll see corporations and nation states fight for control over these resources, while art programmes focused on Antartica will increase. It’s painful but necessary to see how art accompanies capitalist exploitation like a loyal handmaiden.

One down, 39,136 to go: the explorers who walk every street in their city, by Amy Fleming:

No one is yet close to completing all 39,137 streets of Greater London, but in 2014, before CityStrides took off, Noelle Poulson from Utah in the US blazed a trail by walking every street within London’s congestion zone—about 400 miles, she says. Armed with a trusty A-Z, she was determined to become intimately acquainted with the city before her visa ran out. For her, she says, “it was a lot about chatting with people, and going into little shops that I hadn’t seen before, and taking photos and having picnics in the park and really engaging with the city.”

Documentaries and the Art of Manipulation, by Blair McClendon:

Although the two are intertwined, it doesn’t quite make sense to think of documentary, especially its Trump-era surge, as an outgrowth of journalism. Most of the earliest motion pictures—depicting workers, trains, dancers, galloping horses—qualify as nonfiction. Only after it was swallowed by Vaudeville and the nickelodeons did the distinction between different kinds of cinematic images even become meaningful. Debates about truth and deception have value, but they obscure the fact that documentaries have always been more akin to essays than articles. It would be hard to hold up an essay as proof of anything at all, except perhaps consciousness. They are dramas of a mind, or often several, learning, searching, and making things cohere. Trying to relate the problems the booming documentary field faces to the supposed ethical commandments of journalism, as Funt does, obscures a bigger issue: most viewers are not taught to comprehend and evaluate documentaries on the terms by which they are constructed.


Reader rolodex

As more of you subscribe here, I’ve been sharing what some of you have been tending to, professionally or personally. On this occasion, say hello to Nico Vera, a vegan Peruvian chef based in Portland, U.S., who writes the newsletter La Yapa.

I love, love, love Peruvian food, and its tangled diversity and embedded histories, having spent some months living in Lima and traveling around the country some years back. Reading Nico’s published work and his newsletter has been a way to reconnect with a cuisine and culture I am no longer living in proximity to—and through a different lens: to recognize what has always been there, and new possibilities that can be adapted and reimagined, yet again.

He also often reflects on the connections between family, food, and migration. Here’s a piece he wrote about how tacu tacu tells the history of Peru and how it binds generations of his family together:

Peru’s comida criolla is a fusion of Inca, Spanish, African, Chinese, and Japanese culinary cultures that has evolved over a period of 500 years; tacu tacu is one of those dishes with strong Afro-Peruvian roots. Colonists brought African slaves to Peru’s Pacific coast to labor on sugar plantations, cultivate rice, pick cotton, and mine guano. It was at coastal haciendas that slaves began to prepare some of Peru’s first criollo dishes, using ingredients like rice, onions, and limes that had been introduced via Spain’s colonial foodways. These Black women creatively combined leftovers or discarded foods, like frying rice in lard and mixing it with a stew of local canary beans over a wood fire. This was the humble beginning of tacu tacu, whose name comes from the Quechua word taku, which means “mixed.” Over the centuries, this simple dish became popular among Lima’s families—like my grandfather’s—that were part of the city’s working class of Andean, Asian, Italian, or Afro-descended heritage.


Where I leave you

Rediscovering Southeast Asian cinema:

A post shared by Asian Film Archive (@asianfilmarchive)

And thanks again, for reading.

I loved what Patti Smith said recently about Substack: “It makes me feel like, in the movies, where you see the reporter that goes to the phone booth and calls in her article. I feel a bit like that.”

Before you go, have a read of last month’s guest letter by Abby Seiff, and our accompanying Q&A:

And something I was commissioned to write in March on the rights of girls in Malaysia, which was published earlier this month. Good news: the girl’s been granted bail!

Until the next,