Kicking off with a passage from a novel—the first I’ve read of Rachel Cusk’s—that evokes something of how we navigate the world. Play for a short reading.
She had been disappointed by the park, for having decided to grace the art of contemplation with her indulgence in it, it had not occurred to her that the proper accoutrements for its execution would fail to present themselves. The infrequency of her excursions into nature had given her vague, generic assumptions concerning its appearance, and in her search for the verdant scenery of thought she had not prepared herself for the discovery that such places might have problems of their own.
—Rachel Cusk, The Temporary
Like probably all of you, I woke up yesterday and kept an intermittent eye on the U.S. presidential election, though I’m not following it too closely. My relatives seem awed by the fact that political shenanigans in America could rival—supersede?—political shenanigans in Malaysia. Buat wayang, as we might call it here: making a show to obscure what’s really going on or what’s important. I’ve lost track of our never-ending guessing game on who will form the real government of Malaysia, after a coup—the Sheraton Move!—and endless speculation on who will deliver the counter coup amid shameless party-hopping manoeuvres, completely disregarding the votes of Malaysian citizens. What was the point of us voting again? I forget.
I’ve since given up trying to keep track of the shifting alliances, but Wong Sai Wan, The Malay Mail’s editor-in-chief, has a summary as cowboy movie. I sometimes think we almost perversely pride ourselves on the canniness or cunning of our politics, but this is no Game of Thrones, just a bumbling Twister mess of bids for power. Meanwhile, we had several water outages (our comedians delivered the best take), and our coronavirus count is at its highest after elections in the state of Sabah—though thankfully, still low compared to Europe and the U.S. Readers and friends in those places, hang in there ❤️
As for me, I’ve been wrestling for the past couple of months with erratic moods and waking up with knots in my stomach—nothing very serious, but I struggled to work effectively. I also seemed to be putting off the longform features I want to write, taking on research and content-writing assignments instead. It was still good work with good colleagues, but not ultimately what I find most rewarding. Writing stories is the only thing I really want to do, but I sometimes seem to find ways to avoid doing it—when I have difficulty envisioning the process or outcome (especially in this pandemic, when on-the-ground reporting is more challenging), or when I’m too hung up on it being the best I can make it. So it’s been reassuring to read about other writers’ shared struggles. Nicole Zhu on this counterproductive sentiment: “If I can’t sit down and write a substantial number of words in one go, I don’t sit down to write at all.” And Alice Driver, on the impossibility of balance or perfection. I know I need to go back to basics, and find ways to just love the process again.
Of course, any anxiety I feel only gets worse when I think about how they’re nothing compared to others’ make-or-break struggles. Speaking of which, if you have the means, do contribute money to help the refugee community in Malaysia. As I wrote in Foreign Policy a day before World Refugee Day in June, they’ve been having an increasingly difficult time here amid the pandemic. Shortly after my piece ran, Al Jazeera was investigated for their video report and the Bangladeshi migrant who spoke out against the government in it was deported. So, they could really use your support. In particular: there’s the Refugee Emergency Fund founded by Hasan Al-Akraa, a young Syrian refugee in Malaysia—I’ve written about him before—who has been running donation drives to help pregnant refugee mothers pay the cost of delivering their babies in hospital. And there’s the Women’s Emergency Fund for the same purpose, backed by a collective of NGOs.
The good news is, having at last completed a rash of deadlines, I’m slowly coming out of whatever funk I was in. There’s nothing so satisfying or relieving as finishing something, and I always appreciate taking a deep breath of air between assignments. They give me time to clear my head and think through what I want to do next.
I’m also reminding myself to leave my desk and take simple gratification in little rituals that have nothing to do with pitching and writing.
Like sitting out on the porch in the fresh morning air, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes, to read a chapter of a book and to soak up some sun.
Like learning something new again—which, currently, is the German language—even if it’s just for half an hour a day.
Like playing a simple song—“La Valse d’ Amelie”, “Once Upon a Time in the West”, “La Vie En Rose”, “Love of My Life”—on my old piano, which I hadn’t touched in more than fifteen years. It had been left with my cousins for safekeeping after I went abroad to study, and now we’ve taken it back since they’re abroad. (I feel like I must be back at Grade 3 level now, though, despite the fact that I technically passed my Grade 7 exams as a teenager!)
Like tending to my growing indoor plant collection—I really thought I would stop at six!—and closely observing my calatheas in particular. They seem so much more sensitive to light and water than my other plants, curling and unfurling at my slightest behest, which makes me feel terribly responsible for them.
Or like having a quarter glass of leftover birthday wine—I can’t do more than that; wine seems to give me pimples these days—with a slice of papaya before bed, which I think is exactly what I will do now.
As always, I hope you find things in this letter that intrigue, surprise, and move you, and that remind you of the expansiveness of the world. I know that having a sense of that expansiveness has helped me many times in my life, and especially so now, in this ongoing pandemic, when our physical worlds are so circumscribed. It makes me go back to this widely shared poem by Mary Oliver:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Being able to take you with me, every step of the way, means a great deal. Please sign up to get my letters in your inbox and to support my writing and curiosity ❤️
On place and identity & navigating the world
How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda by Jia Yang Fan:
When Ying texted again, I knew it would be a message from my mother. I feared being misunderstood by someone whose life was so kneaded into my own, whose choices had both bound and liberated me, and whose words, even when blinked with the last functioning muscles of her body, could utterly undo me. My mother’s message was brief and pointed. It contained a Chinese idiom, “A clean body needs no washing”—that is, if you are not guilty of anything, you have nothing to atone for. In English, she then added, “I am survive.”
Our Orgiastic Future by Jack Hitt, about how bonobos throw a kink into the story of our evolution. Presenting scientific research with tongue-in-cheek pizazz, this was so much fun to read. I laughed out loud in several places. I found it when I googled bonobos, having read an intriguing mention of them in a book I recently started.
These primates so easily undermine our African genesis story, not merely by revealing that cooperation was key to our evolutionary progress but also by showing that somehow pleasure played a crucial part all along. It’s another reason why the media seem to get squeamish whenever bonobos make it into a headline. The popular press cannot be expected to seriously ask the obvious questions posed by the existence of our genetic cousins. I mean, what does it suggest that homosexuality is enjoyed with as much lustiness as heterosexuality? And what to make of the sheer casualness and breathtaking fun of their sex? A bonobo who finds a new fruit tree will report back, at which point an orgy breaks out, and then after everyone shares in the bounty, another orgy occurs as some kind of digestif. (A chimpanzee, on the other hand, might gorge itself on the fruit, guard the tree, and share only with reluctance.)
The Store That Called the Cops on George Floyd and the history that surrounds that street corner where he died, by Aymann Ismail:
Malik, who agreed to speak if I used a pseudonym, had arrived from West Africa last year to join relatives who were living in Minnesota. Malik is a U.S. citizen but had lived abroad since he was a baby. English is his second language, and even as a tall Black teenager himself, he told me that he wasn’t especially aware of the dynamic between Black Americans and the police. When he dialed 911, he said he had no idea what could happen.
The secret economics of a VIP party, in a network of nightclubs spanning the globe—well, in Before Time—by Ashley Mears. (And hey, Malaysia’s very own “whale”, Jho Low, gets a very brief mention.)
To achieve this effect, the women brought in by the promoters either had to be models or have similar physical attributes: beauty, height and thinness. Non-models with the right appearance were sometimes part of the entourage, but they stood a notch lower down in the caste system, referred to as “good civilians”. Unlike the waitresses, who tended to be more voluptuous, the job of the women the promoters brought in was not primarily to appeal to men’s sexual fantasies but to represent the most aspirational version of femininity. Promoters told me in all seriousness that letting in women who were merely slim rather than thin could really damage a club’s reputation.
The Fantasy and the Cyberpunk Futurism of Singapore by Jerrine Tan:
Singapore’s self-conception shares the paradox of cyberpunk, embracing both the traditional and postmodern. We supplicate at the feet of our colonial past at the same time we believe ourselves autochthonous, springing out of the ground from dragon’s teeth as in the Greek myth—self-made and therefore without past. This metaphor is literalized in the island’s geology itself: The Dragon’s Teeth Gate was a geological feature of the Singapore harbor that guided ancient mariners. It was destroyed by the British.
Photographs that breathe
As Typhoon Goni hit the Philippines, a reminder of the devastating impact typhoons wreak on human lives in Hannah Reyes Morales’ series Shelter from the Storm, about the Filipino girls and women forced to enter the sex trade after being displaced by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Hannah, who I met once at a workshop led by Sim Chi Yin, does everything—including writing—with feeling, and her public takes are always lucid and inspiring. This particular series is heartbreaking, but also hopeful, as all her stories are.
When Haiyan came, the roof of their house got blown off, the walls completely destroyed. The store their mother ran was looted, and almost nothing was left. Jojo describes nights on the streets of Angeles City as affording small steps in rebuilding a home—going home with a foreigner can get her enough money for hollow blocks, then maybe next time a bit of plywood, the roof. Their house is by a lush green field and the mountains, and Jojo who worked nights to help get it rebuilt. The walls inside are blue, with photographs of the girls, still water damaged from typhoons. Back in Leyte, their mother lives in that house. It withstood the last rainfall.
How we move (or not) and live now
Oumi Janta Is Leading a Skating Revolution in Berlin by Diana Hubbell—who also writes one of my favourite newsletters, A Great Little Place I Know, which takes you by the hand around Berlin with the cosy intimacy of an insider and makes me miss hanging out in cafes and bars so so much.
In This Tokyo Bar, People Don’t Talk. They Write, by Miran Miyano
The 400,000 seafarers who can’t go home by Tim McDonald
Move Over, Sustainable Travel. Regenerative Travel Has Arrived, by Elaine Glusac. May “regenerative” not end up another hackneyed buzzword.
Btw, there are more video stories at Pop-Up Magazine (usually performed live), brought to you by the folks behind the recently shuttered California Sunday magazine—including Rebecca Chew, a friend and former Art Director of Esquire Malaysia and Singapore, whose work I love ❤️
Making sense of a world at once quotidian, absurd, brutish, poignant, and extraordinary
With Honduras as its fiftieth signatory, the international treaty to ban nuclear weapons will now come into force next year, though sixty-nine countries (including all nuclear powers 😑) have yet to sign it. For the occasion, a throwback to this 2017 piece by Daniel Golden: In order to tempt nuclear scientists from countries such as Iran or North Korea to defect, US spy agencies routinely send agents to academic conferences—or even host their own fake ones.
Christine Ro from Japan, The saboteurs you can hire to end your relationship
You sort of know what’s going on in Xinjiang. Know better. Read the testimonials collected by Ben Mauk, in an illustrated collection in The Believer.
Patrick Barkham from Britain, How maverick rewilders are trying to turn back the tide of extinction
Steve LeVine from Jakarta, The Radical Plan to Save the Fastest Sinking City in the World.
With echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale: Is the banning of surrogate births—“wombs for hire”—a protection or an assault on women’s rights and autonomy? Insights from India by Kiran Sharma, and from Cambodia by Sineat Yon and Danielle Keeton-Olsen.
With Netflix’s recent documentary on Black Pink, a timely read: The K-Pop Cover-Up by Maria Sherman and Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
Landmine detection rat Magawa wins gold medal for ‘life-saving’ work in Cambodia by Ainslee Asokan ❤️
A writer on the road
Leah Sotille back on a reporting road trip, which reminds me of the ones I took around Malaysia before the pandemic—how lonely it often was, but also how utterly freeing, and inspiring.
[…] my strengths as a writer and reporter often come from the lonely feeling of being far from my comfort, wrestling with big ideas by myself, driving further into wilderness than I typically would, hovering too long at the scene of a crime, jotting down notes that make sense only to me. […] This has been a reminder of the power of loneliness, for me at least, and the endless creativity that can come from solitude, dwelling on a feeling and a story and the energy of a place at a certain moment in time.
How we make sense of the world & tell its stories
Getting Others Right by Teju Cole. But how we so often and so easily get it wrong, despite our best intentions.
The World Is Trapped in America’s Culture War, by Helen Lewis. Especially relevant now with the U.S. election going on. The question of whether we are importing America’s culture wars also came up recently in Malaysia when a Malay celebrity wore an Indian sari to promote her products, prompting discussion on social media on whether it constituted cultural appropriation or appreciation, considering the nuances of Malaysia’s cultural contexts.
Something to think about
It’s ironic that most people’s money winds up being used for all kinds of projects that they personally would never support. An individual can go vegan, compost, and turn their thermostat down only to find that the money in their savings account is funding a pipeline or fracking. The solution is to educate yourself on your bank’s values and actions. Choose a local credit union or larger bank with more progressive environmental policies. Check out the company they keep, especially support for environmental groups. But most importantly, act on the information you find, and make sure that your bank aligns with your values. After all, your bank is using your money to impact the world, one way or another.
I recently started thinking about this when I picked up some writing work with a U.S.-based bank that has pledged to prohibit or restrict financing of coal power, palm-oil production, and shale and tar sands, among others.
In Southeast Asia, only Singaporean banks have any policies in place to stop funding coal power projects. In Malaysia, banks are now similarly under pressure—CIMB has said it’ll come up with a coal financing policy by the end of the year.
Signing off at 3 a.m.,