A 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.
I like to begin this series with a passage of fiction that evokes something of places and how we move through them. Play for a brief reading from Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels:
At night, a few lights marked port and starboard of these gargantuan industrial forms, and I filled them with loneliness. I listened to these dark shapes as if they were black spaces in music, a musician learning the silences of a piece. I felt this was my truth. That my life could not be stored in any language but only in silence; the moment I looked into the room and took in only what was visible, not vanished. The moment I failed to see Bella had disappeared. But I did not know how to seek by way of silence. So I lived a breath apart, a touch-typist who holds his hands above the keys lightly in the wrong place, the words coming out meaningless, garbled. Bella and I inches apart, the wall between us. I thought of writing poems this way, in code, every letter askew, so that loss would wreck the language, become the language. If one could isolate that space, that damaged chromosome in words, in an image, then perhaps one could restore order by naming. Otherwise history is only a tangle of wires. So in poems I returned to Biskupin, to the house on Zakynthos, to the forest, to the river, to the burst door, to the minutes in the wall.
I started writing this letter in August, but wasn’t able to put in the finishing touches until now.
So much has happened in the world since you last heard from me. Wildfires across the globe, Salman Rushdie stabbed on stage, a third of Pakistan flooded, the death of Queen Elizabeth, Mahsa Amini’s killing by Iran’s morality police, the heated debate building over A.I. art, our former Prime Minister in Malaysia sentenced to jail for a global corruption scandal that involved the making of The Wolf of Wall Street…
But, as with more recent Landmarkings issues, this one is not intended to mirror the breaking news cycle except by coincidence, for the sake of my own sanity. I’m not saying anyone should tune out of the news—in fact, there has never been a time where it is more important, and those who are most affected by the news cycle can’t afford to switch off—only that I trust you’re keeping up with it elsewhere, as I am.
Instead, may this be a space that helps you linger on things nevertheless important but less talked about, that helps you consider the bigger picture and the long shadows of the past, and that helps you try on different frames through which to look at the world.
Look out for another letter this month that will provide more of an update on what I’ve been up to.
Making sense of the world & our place in it
The Provenance Detective—a story I wrote about efforts by Jacques Schumacher at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum of decorative art to trace the origins of items in the Gilbert Collection. An excerpt about an enamel portrait miniature that once belonged to a man named Adolph List:
A postcard sent in 1937 to the board of the company that Adolph founded ultimately exposed him. Shareholders had begun claiming Adolph was Jewish, which he denied. This time, the sender—an anonymous shareholder—requested Adolph’s dismissal, charging that his being Jewish would harm the company. Adolph was forced to resign. The board also deemed his wife to be Jewish and refused to pay her his pension when he died the next year.
But Klara Helene was not Jewish. To prove it, she submitted herself to a check by the Reich Agency for Genealogical Research, which certified she was of “German or related blood.” That she had to play to Nazi race logic to claim what was hers seems a tragedy. But this entitled her to Adolph’s pension, and to the proceeds of his art collection: She auctioned the portrait miniature in 1939.
I’m not sure what it’s like in Kyiv right now, but amid all the news of Ukraine, I’m thinking about two stories I had read before that paint a poignant portrait of Kyiv’s nightlife—before and after the Russian invasion:
Human Trafficking’s Newest Abuse: Forcing Victims Into Cyberscamming, by Cezary Podkul with Cindy Liu:
Unlike the countless people trafficked before them who were forced to perform sex work or labor for commercial shrimping operations, the two brothers ended up in a new occupation for trafficking victims: playing roles in financial scams that have swindled people across the globe, including in the United States. […] The victims are then coerced into defrauding people all around the world. If they resist, they face beatings, food deprivation or electric shocks. Some jump from balconies to escape. Others accept their lot and become paid participants in cybercrime.
The sultan, his family and a $15bn dispute over oil in Malaysia by Oliver Telling—a fascinating look into the continued claim, dating from British colonial days, by the purported heirs of the Sultan of Sulu in the Philippines over Sabah, a Malaysian state that is part of the island of Borneo. The first we Malaysians learnt widely of this was when a group calling themselves the Royal Army of Sulu invaded Sabah in 2013. Now, the dispute has gone legal, and global:
It is an unlikely setting for a legal fight over a British colonial holdover. But at lunchtime last Monday, a bailiff walked into a serviced office building in the Avenue John F Kennedy in central Luxembourg to serve an asset seizure notice on two subsidiaries of one of the biggest energy companies in the world, Petronas. It was a stunning salvo in a $15bn legal battle that centres on a Malaysian state about 11,000km away, and involves descendants of a former sultan, a land deal with British colonialists, a publicity-shy London-based litigation fund and a dispute 144 years in the making. […]
The case, which until now has attracted little international attention, centres on competing claims over the oil-rich Malaysian state of Sabah. The eight claimants say they are the heirs of Jamalul Kiram II, the last formally recognised sultan of Sulu, a small archipelago in the nearby Philippines. For several years they have been seeking compensation for the land that they say their ancestor leased to a British trading company before the discovery of vast natural resources in Sabah.
Sometimes, my picks here consist of stories I’d had in mind to write, but was beaten to. Here’s one of them, The Wild West Outpost of Japan’s Isolationist Era by Rob Goss:
Although Toyotomi died in a delirious stupor in 1598, subsequent shoguns continued his purges. But ridding the country of Christianity was only one part of the ultimate plan. Shogun Tokugawan Iemitsu also issued a series of sakoku (“closed country”) edicts, which included barring foreign nationals from entering Japan, as well as banning all Japanese, on threat of death, from leaving the country. With these orders, he set Japan on course for more than 200 years of complete and utter self-isolation. Or almost.
The now closed-off country would maintain limited trading routes with the Chinese and Koreans, as well as the Ryukyu kingdom and the indigenous Ainu people, both within the borders of modern-day Japan. But Europeans would be restricted to a single patch of earth—a manmade island in Nagasaki Bay. There, these traders could interact with the Japanese, but with a few (carefully escorted) exceptions they were barred from continuing on to mainland Japan.
To the Divorcée at the Dive Bar by Diana Hubbell, also a love letter to Berlin:
One month earlier, in the unearthly dark of a Northern European January, I’d moved back to Germany, to a sublet just above Die Legende, a five-minute walk from my old address in Berlin. I was fleeing New York, and the new flat was everything my New York apartment was not: an airy Bauhaus loft with two floors and a view of a gothic cathedral. My first evening in it, I wandered through the rooms like a cat, overwhelmed by all the quiet and space that were suddenly mine.
When you asked me what I was doing here, I replied in stilted German that whenever I didn’t know what to do, I went back to the familiar.
News of Mahsa Amini’s killing in Iran reminded me of this animated short by a cohort of Gobelins students I watched recently. I won’t give it away, but do watch—and then you can read this (it contains spoilers) for context:
Something to shift your mind
We have many good ideas about how to save the world, but they can have unintended consequences when we fail to keep the big picture in mind—and it feels to me like we do often fail to keep the big picture in mind. Though arguably, in a world where the unfettered growth of our businesses and economies is prioritised above all else, even the best solutions, implemented unevenly and without careful nuance, can be taken to its worst perverted ends.
Read Europe Is Sacrificing Its Ancient Forests for Green Energy, by Sarah Hurts and Weiyi Cai:
And while European nations can count wood power toward their clean-energy targets, the E.U. scientific research agency said last year that burning wood released more carbon dioxide than would have been emitted had that energy come from fossil fuels.
“People buy wood pellets thinking they’re the sustainable choice, but in reality, they’re driving the destruction of Europe’s last wild forests,” said David Gehl of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington-based advocacy group that has studied wood use in Central Europe.
In Malaysia too, Yao-Hua Law has a great story on how Malaysia’s so-called forest plantations—originally established to discourage the logging of timber from natural forests—has actually “been used as an excuse by the unscrupulous to clear-fell reserves”.
Being able to take you with me, every step of the way, means a great deal. Please sign up to receive my letters in your inbox and to support my writing and curiosity ❤️
How we “see” the world & tell its stories
After Salman Rushdie’s stabbing, Patrick Ness on censorship in the internet age:
But if I’m honest, isn’t part of it also fear? Fear of having whatever I’d say about the Islamic veil—no matter how thoughtfully I’d said it—misappropriated, misquoted or badly paraphrased in the inevitable tweeting that’s going on right this very second? Fear of having my words turned into something they aren’t, and having to suffer the consequences.
Because the price of being misunderstood is very high. In the online world, nothing can be unsaid and nothing is off the record. And once you’re forced, fairly or not, to start saying something like, “I'm not a racist,” haven’t you lost the legitimacy of your voice forever? Is that something a writer can risk?
On “blunt force ethnic credibility”, by Som-Mai Nguyen:
There’s a jazz-hands half-nelson device I dislike in diasporic literature and criticism. Writers extrapolate from orthographic coincidence and sprinkle in non-English words to assert unearned authority. I tire of variants on: in Vietnamese, a tonal language, ma can mean many things. The author rattles off ghost, mother, tomb, horse, code, accompanied by the suggestion that this phrenologically means something. These claims are in-group sleights of hand, smugly announcing, without real evidence, that the author has exotic cultural knowledge the outsider cannot fathom. If you know, you know.
In an earlier letter, I shared an essay I wrote based on Tim Hannigan’s Travel Writing Tribe, which grapples with travel writing’s place in our present world. On his website recently, I also found this on the “new” nature writing:
By ostensibly focussing on “nature”, the genre often manages to ignore “the natives” altogether, denuding the countryside of inhabitants entirely, or encountering only a handful of atypical representatives (who often turn out to be “expats”—organic downsizers, well-heeled literary types, elective refugees from some other, metropolitan existence). Ignoring people is a very potent way of representing them: a tacit acknowledgement of their existence remains, but they are firmly put in their place; they are made singularly insignificant. It’s also a prime example of a writer awarding himself tremendous authority: that to entirely unpeople a landscape. A travel writer ignoring the inhabitants of, say, the Hindu Kush to glory exclusively in the grandeur of its natural features is the sort of thing scholars have been vigorously critiquing for decades. And yet New Nature Writers often do exactly this in smaller mountain ranges, closer to home.
Something to sink into
I’ve long meant to watch this documentary about Timothy Treadwell by Werner Herzog: a fascinating portrait of one man’s relationship with the bears in Alaska’s Kanmai National Park that he ostensibly sought to protect from poachers, though the park’s bear population were reportedly never at risk. At times, it was possible empathise with Treadwell’s clear sincerity, to feel that the lone voice can ring true, if with futility, against prevailing forces. At other times, watching Treadwell—he filmed hours of footage of himself, which Herzog had access to—felt like being forced to look into a light too bright. It was hard not to feel that he was unhinged: when he treated the bears like cuddly pets and cooed at them, ‘I love you, I love you”, or when he spewed abuse at his critics. Increasingly, he seemed to be unravelling into his isolation and the aggressively defensive position he had taken against the world. In his mythology of self, he believed that he alone was the bears’ saviour. It reminded me of how, despite our best intentions, we don’t always find what we seek in nature, and, because we don’t truly understand it, how little control we can really exert on it without risking its—and our—destruction.
A good place where I am
At GMBB, an art community mall in downtown Kuala Lumpur, there’s a free exhibition by American wildlife photographer Chien C. Lee about Borneo’s “Masters of Disguise”. We went on a day when he was leading tours through his exhibition, which was absolutely fascinating, and there remained plenty more to discover on our own after. Highly recommend it.
(While you’re there, also check out concept artists Tintoy and Take Huat’s superhero shadow puppets. To learn more about what they do: here’s a story I wrote before about what shadow puppetry has to do with the politics of Islam in the Malaysian state of Kelantan.)
And I leave you with
Sinead O’Connor, back in the news as the subject of a new documentary (and her voice is still amazing). I actually got reacquainted again with her, through this song, a few years back when I was doing a story in Belfast.
For now, if you’re in need of transporting—don’t we all sometimes?—her singing “Molly Malone” will do it.
I thank you all for giving this little newsletter a chance, and I hope you keep finding reasons to stay.