I like to begin the Landmarkings series with a passage from a work of fiction that evokes something of how we navigate the world. This is from the Singaporean writer Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel. Play for an extended reading:
Before Ibrahim, Bébé had never allowed herself to enjoy the city as she walked through it, because she thought it was painfully clear that she was not in Paris for leisure. She knew her place, and should act in accordance with that knowledge. She held her head highest when she was in her maid uniform. Because no one had to guess at who or what she was, she could be.
—Amanda Lee Koe, Delayed Rays of a Star
I’m aware how long my letters usually are, so I’ll make this preamble short 😊
If you’re new around here, this dispatch is part of a recurring curated series (read the first and the second), where I share a mix of journalism, essays, fiction, and art that bring to life places everywhere, and perspectives rethinking how we see the world and tell its stories. There will be both old and new reads, as the point is not to be enslaved to the news cycle.
Also, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who reached out after reading my last letter about travelling alone as a woman in remote places. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s the personal stories I’ve shared in this newsletter that have resonated most with you—including this dispatch written from the Munich-to-Berlin overnight train. I struggle very hard and very often about how much of my life to share online, even if details I eventually share may not seem terribly revealing—for instance, pictures of my dog! I’ve even gone back and forth in my head on whether to remove the personal essays from the archives, but ultimately decided against it. I just think that as much as I, like anyone, want to be seen and understood, I also like the idea of being able to recede into anonymity whenever I want to—the sheer liberation of it, right? I’m that person who prefers to be unknown in a big city to being known in a smaller one, who prefers to spread myself around new cafes instead of patronising a regular spot.
But besides telling other people’s stories, I also write to find out what I think and how I see the world, and one’s own perspective borne of one’s own experiences can enrich a meditation, or an investigation, of things—so the fantasy of reverting to being unsearchable online feels impossible, for better or worse. When I get a note from any one of you telling me that something personal I wrote moved you, that settles me a little, makes me want to write some more. So thank you, and thank you again for reading ❤️
On place and identity & navigating the world
In Lagos, Space For My Thoughts To Fly by Allyn Gaestel, a piece I feel very close to. I particularly love this passage on how one’s physical orientation orients one’s mental outlook on the world.
I choose to live here—very specifically here, in this neighborhood, in this building. The space you stay is the center of your world. It becomes the reference, the subconscious “normal.” Though writing is introspective, the space you are writing from—the space you are thinking from—still informs perspective. It is different to read the New York Times in Brooklyn than it is to read it in Yaba. I wanted to make my vantage point a middle class neighborhood in mainland Lagos, layered with history, populated by families. I chose a space where I don’t have guaranteed electricity. I like the reminder of consumption. I don’t mind when the power runs out and I choose not to use the generator, and instead light candles, meditate, go outside. I don’t mind the occasional bucket shower; I find it cozy. We move through and fill our homes, and our homes also subtly move through us. But my choice to live here is a privilege.
Andy Beckett on PPE: the Oxford degree that runs Britain — I cop to having applied for this degree when I was casting around for my undergrad studies (clearly, I didn’t make the cut), though I hadn’t known anything about the baggage it carried. But I suspect I am simply exactly the kind of intellectual dilettante it seems to attract 😆
“PPE thrives,” says Willetts, a former education minister who is writing a book about universities, “because a problem of English education is too much specialisation too soon, whereas PPE is much closer to the prestigious degrees for generalists available in the United States. As a PPE graduate, you end up with a broad sense of modern political history, you’ve cantered through political thought, done [philosophical] logic, wrestled with economics from monetarism to Maynard Keynes. You’ve had to get through a lot of work – 16 essays a term. That’s very useful later when you have to write a speech to a deadline.” Willetts adds: “As a minister, you do sometimes think that British political life is an endless recreation of the PPE essay crisis.”
How Saudi Arabia's religious project transformed Indonesia by Krithika Varagur, which made me think about parallels in Malaysia.
Arabisasi was one of the first Indonesian words I learned after I moved to the country in 2016. It’s a neologism meaning, as you might expect, “Arabisation”. But the concept was used in reference to a whole class of developments in Indonesia: the rise of political Islam, blasphemy prosecutions, the growing popularity of hijabs and burqas, new mosques, louder mosques, new schools, the persecution of religious minorities. Above all, it referred to the relatively new, central role for Islam in the cultural and political life of a big democracy that was, until 1998, a tightly controlled military dictatorship. The underlying claim was that five decades of Saudi Arabia’s religious influence in Indonesia was responsible for all these things.
The Weekly Package by the late Kim Wall, on how Cubans deliver culture without internet. It remains one of my favourite pieces explaining the workings of a place, though I’m curious about how prevalent this phenomenon still is.
Cisneros’s building had no internet connection—in Cuba, only apparatchiks and hackers could get online at home. But when she plugged the drive into her laptop, another world revealed itself, in folders within folders—containing MP3, AVI, JPEG, and PDF files—arranged in alphabetical order from “Antivirus” to “Trailers.” El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Package”), as the compilation is called, is part newsstand, part mixtape, part offline streaming service—a drive curated with magazine articles, Hollywood films, YouTube videos, phone apps, classified ads, and more. It has become the country’s largest private industry, reaching about half the population and generating at least $1.5 million a week. Underground hustlers keep the operation running with some 45,000 foot soldiers. Almost any media can be downloaded, though not quite everything; El Paquete producers scrub out politics, religion, and pornography, knowing what is likely to upset government censors—who, of course, receive drives of their own.
The Wound of Multilingualism: On Surrending the Languages of Home by Sulaiman Addonia
The English language has a history of borrowing words, some would say stealing, from many other nations. But in my eyes, English felt like me, eternally wandering, crossing boundaries, leaping over borders, swallowing a phrase here, a word there, refusing to toe the line of fixating itself to one identity, one territory. My relationship with the English language was founded on the ability of both of us to adapt. Years after that first morning in London, I became a writer who writes in English. I remember people trying to dissuade me when they learned of my new career move. You can’t write in your second language, they told me. But English wasn’t my second, or third, or fourth. I no longer had a mother tongue to rank it against. How does someone like me measure the strength of a language? Is it how well I pronounce it or how well I thread its words to create a unique turn of phrase? Is it how solemn and somber I make it or poetically illustrate it? Sometimes, when I read copy-editors’ comments on my books, saying things such as “how this or that sentence doesn’t sound natural in English,” I feel as if I hijacked a language and took it into a direction that only immigrants and those with a history of migration in their bloodline would understand. We the refugees and immigrants know that a language, like us, can re-settle somewhere far away from its native land and still feel at home.
Photographs that breathe
Her most recent project continues her exploration into her family’s history, from Moscow to America, but with a twist—a kind of re-enactment, which raises interesting questions about the boundaries between documentary and art.
How we move (or not) and live now
The Cruise Ship Suicides by Austin Carr
My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore? by Gabrielle Hamilton
They post pictures of themselves embracing their partners and share stories of how they met and the toll of their separation. This mosaic of longing insists that love and family, in all their forms, is deserving of compassion. The young woman who undergoes surgery for cancer without her boyfriend by her side; the husband who has to let his partner give birth alone; the mother and her children on the phone with their father, waving across the channel separating Singapore and Malaysia, even though they can’t actually see him.
To witness them proclaim their love so publicly is to be heartened in a time of increasing ethnocentrism and nationalism. They also test our assumptions about what love looks like in a globalized age, as several countries, having made the “sweetheart” exception, impose various requirements for reunion. What if you’ve only been together for six months? What if you’ve never lived together? How do you quantify the strength of love?
Making sense of a world at once quotidian, absurd, brutish, poignant, and extraordinary
A Chinese ‘Auntie’ Went on a Solo Road Trip. Now, She’s a Feminist Icon by Joy Dong and Vivian Wang
From Will Yakowicz in the U.S., Inside The $4.5 Billion Erotic Massage Parlor Economy
From Sirin Kale in London, Out of thin air: the mystery of the man who fell from the sky
30 Years Ago, Romania Deprived Thousands of Babies of Human Contact, by Melissa Fay Greene
I Called Everyone in Jeffrey Epstein’s Little Black Book by Leland Nally
Kyle Chayka on NFTS: How Beeple Crashed the Art World
From Sabrina Weiss in Mozambique, The wild experiment to bring apex predators back from the brink
From R.age journalists collaborating with indigenous Orang Asli in Malaysia, The Village Journalists of Kampung Ong Jangking, who are defending their forests against logging and development.
A Black Belgian Student Saw a White Fraternity as His Ticket. It Was His Death, by Matt Apuzzo and Steven Erlanger
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 ❤️
Writers on the road
In Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another—“another” referring to her one-time husband Ernest Hemingway, who she simply names U.C., Unwilling Companion, in the book because he had been reluctant to join her in China, where she had been dispatched to report on the war with Japan. In one section, she contrasts their approaches to travel:
U.C. could not bear party chatter, or discussions of politics or the arts, but never tired of true life stories, the more unlikely the better. He was able to sit with a bunch of men for most of a day or most of a night, or most of both day and night though perhaps with different men, wherever he happened to have started sitting, all of them fortified by a continuous supply of drink, the while he roared with laughter at reminiscences and anecdotes. It was a valid system for him. Aside from being his form of amusement, he learned about a place and people through the eyes and experience of those who lived there.
Though a hearty talker in my own right and given to laughing loudly at my own jokes, I was a novice drinker and had a separate approach to learning. I wanted to see for myself, not hear. U.C. did not mind what I did as long as he didn’t have to do it too. Much as I like conversation, I like it only in bursts for a few hours, not marathons, and seldom in group formation. I slipped away from the large leather chairs. U.C. used to say, kindly, “M. is going off to take the pulse of the nation.”
In a previous letter, I referred to someone I’ve been spending a lot of time with as W.C., as in, Willing Companion. Now you see where the inspiration came from.
How we make sense of the world & tell its stories
The People of Las Vegas by Amanda Fortini — I love this story for how it reminded me of how much I loved Vegas when I spent a few days there on my own, wandering around the Strip and the downtown area and the Atomic Museum and horse-riding in the Mojave. It was so much more than the popular impressions of it I had held in my head.
Las Vegans who consider themselves culturally sophisticated (like many of my university colleagues) tend to distance themselves from the Strip’s uncomplicated and coarse enchantments, emphatically claiming they never set foot in any of the restaurants, nightclubs, or overpriced boutiques that populate the casinos. This may be true, but I also think it’s a defensive, contrarian reaction to the prevailing clichés—a kneejerk assertion of individuality in response to years of stereotyping. One could argue that some residents get so caught up in rejecting the clichés that they, too, cease to see the place as it is.
And again, a new impetus to rethink how foreign correspondence is done. Read How CNN’s Myanmar Trip Started a Debate Over Parachute Journalism by Heather Chen and Joe Freeman at Vice, for an overview of the controversy surrounding Clarissa Ward’s trip to the country. Then read this account by Allegra Mendelson of Southeast Asia Globe, who was also invited on the embed with Myanmar’s junta. Then read criticisms by Kirsten Han and Aye Min Thant. And this Twitter thread by Shibani Mahtani of the Washington Post.
I was also disappointed to hear that two reporting projects I had admired in the past have not stood up to time—the truth, rather—with the problem grounded, at least in part, in the way we are habitually conditioned to see the world.
There were glaring ethical issues with the NYT’s Caliphate podcast series even from the start, no matter how compelling, which are now laid bare in A Riveting ISIS Story, Told in a Times Podcast, Falls Apart. A longer analysis from Harper’s here, too, if you’re so inclined.
And you’ve probably read and marvelled at how the actors in Japan’s “rent-a-family” industry, as reported in Elif Batuman’s New Yorker story, were never found out in the age of the internet. Well, turns out it was a story too good to be true: read How The New Yorker Fell Into the “Weird Japan” Trap by Ryu Spaeth. And admittedly, not just The New Yorker. Many of us are probably guilty of believing too easily, of wanting to believe, in “Weird Japan”.
Last but not least: A Case for a More Regional Understanding of Food, instead of seeing it in terms of reductive national monoliths, by Bettina Makalintal.
The American food landscape distills many global cuisines into singularly national identities, and food media tends to frame cuisines from countries it deems “less familiar” to most Americans through generalizations. In doing so, it shuffles the localized foodways—and the diversity of the people that create them—into an amalgamation of national culture, and that’s if it recognizes those nations at all.
Something to think about
Before I go, I’ll leave you with these lovely passages from “The Inward Migration in Apocalyptic Times” by Alexis Wright—so apt for our current moment:
This inward migration—removing oneself to a place of concentration, imagination, and wondering—is the mind working and sifting through the essence of things; it’s where you begin to try to comprehend the complexity of the endless interconnectedness of place, and what it means to be in place with your homeland, and to visualize faraway places and all of the ideas that arise from curiosity.
That’s the end of this edition. I hope you find something here you can hold on to.
And take good care, wherever you are.