From the places in between
On transitions, here versus there, and the pursuit of transcendence.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Go to the Limits of Your Longing
Hello, it’s been a while.
I started writing a long letter back in September, but procrastinated on putting the finishing touches to it. Writing piled up, I got back on the road, procrastinated on more commissions, worked through some niggling existential uncertainties, and never got to sending that letter off. It was a long digression on what I’d read and watched and listened to, which felt like something I wanted to share and no longer feel the need to. So this is a rewritten letter: patchwork updates on what I’ve been thinking about, a few of those recommendations included. I should have sent it out sooner into the new year (which was when I wrote most of it), but I’ve never been good at coming up with sagely round-ups to mark momentous occasions. Here it is now, filled with more questions than answers and hardly any resolutions.
After some time out from social media—not a case of detoxing, I’ve just been caught up in a little personal turbulence, and not all of it the bad kind—it’s nice to be back in touch. Thanks to everyone who reached out to my last letter, which seems to have moved quite a few of you. I hope you enjoy reading this one too, and that you’re off to an encouraging start this year ❤️
Reading San Mao and writing postcards while nursing sweet breads and copious amounts of mint tea on a riad’s roof terrace in Marrakech.
I remember thinking that sunny, windy morning in December how content, how at peace, I felt alone with a notepad and a book in a beautiful place, but also that I didn’t feel absolutely wholehearted about travelling just then, and that I wanted to be back in the embrace of a place among people to whom I mean something.
The trip had been mainly a family holiday and was too short, even with the few extra days I gave myself to travel solo, to do a story. And I know, have learnt time and time over, that without a story to guide me, I lose some of my clarity for moving, surefooted, through lands new and strange to me. A certain listlessness, a certain repetition, can start to creep in. And yet.
For a while, it seemed as if I would be spending Christmas and New Year’s in Morocco on my own (updates on Instagram) after my relatives left. I think I would have found a way to make it count, but in the end, I decided to spend the festive season among friends. And I’m thankful I did.
In London, I stayed with one of my oldest friends and spent Christmas with him and his wife, and his brother and his brother’s kids—gathered round in solidarity in the glow of fairy lights and presents under the Christmas tree over the absence, for a time, of one of their own. For someone like me who still moves through the world with a certain degree of autonomy, with no real dependents, I admired my friend and his wife for taking on, so wholeheartedly and so cheerfully, some of the responsibilities for his young nephew and niece, especially so soon after they’d gotten married. It made me think about that line from Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive”—somebody force me to care / somebody let me come through—sung most recently by Adam Driver in Marriage Story. It made me think about how the emotional demands we ask of each other make our bonds, and about the things we do, and stepping up, for the people we love.
And then, again, Berlin: a city that speaks to me—and so many others (I’ve bumped into quite a few strangers who all have an inspired story of why they moved here)—in a way that other cities haven’t in a while. I spent New Year’s Eve with a new friend, who felt from the very beginning like a very old friend, at a house party among friendly strangers.
It reminded me of New Year’s Eve, 2017, when I was in Belfast alone traveling and working on a story, and was invited to a house party where I knew nobody else, but somehow ended the night huddled in a tight circle of new acquaintances, jumping up and down and belting it out to “Bohemian Rhapsody”—feeling a little removed, still, but gratified to have been included for a moment.
In Berlin, we ushered in the new year by lighting up billowy white lanterns, wishing on them, and releasing them into the black sky. One got stuck in the trees, twice, and the only thing left to do was laugh, and pray that it wouldn’t burn down the park.
Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.
—James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
It feels like the question of where to be, where to commit to, has been the central dilemma of my life for the past few years. It feels like the dilemma from which flows other central dilemmas: What community to commit to? What projects to commit to? Perhaps, even, which self to commit to above all other selves? I feel the need to point out that this isn’t the same as being flaky. It’s more that I take making a commitment too seriously, in a way that can be paralyzing and counter-productive.
My family and some of my oldest friends, as well as a sense of obligation—misplaced or not—to understanding one’s origins, tether me to Malaysia. And for the most part, that’s where I've been based, and where I’m still largely based. But my longing for adventure, for exploring the world and telling the stories of people not like me, and also, for a city that better expresses my inner desires, takes my head and heart elsewhere—though these days, the catalyst by which to plan my working trips around seems to be weddings.
When I’ve been home for a while, I want to be away; when I’ve been away for a while, I want to be home. Every place ends up feeling like a stopover, a long one, since I’m not the kind of traveler who enjoys being constantly on the move. I prefer, instead, to park myself somewhere for a while, so that it starts to approximate something like home. I grow into a semblance of a routine, and then it’s time to go again. This feeling has remained with me through much of my late twenties and early thirties, and I’ve never quite been able to disentangle myself from what feels like conflicting impulses. And I want to, I yearn for the clarity it would bring. And yet.
I talked about this with a friend, not for the first time, before the end of 2019, over a late-night cheese murtabak at home in Kuala Lumpur. I was a little taken aback when he said, in not so many words, that it looked to him, in a way, like a lack of progress. He seemed frustrated almost, as if it mirrored a personal dilemma he might be weathering through. Do one or the other, but do it unapologetically, he seemed to say. His remark stung a little, and I wondered if he was right, if one really had to choose.
I’ve always thought that I would just naturally choose a place when something shifts, when a familial obligation, a career opportunity, or a particular someone points the way. But more and more, I’m thinking that maybe it’s a decision I just have to make, and then the rest will fall into place. Or maybe I’m just coveting what others have and I’m starting to think about this all wrong. Maybe nothing has to be a commitment, or permanent, in any way.
A concept artist I met at the New Year’s Eve party in Berlin said that since he could mostly do his work from anywhere, he would be fine going anywhere. It wouldn’t be a big decision—if a place didn’t work, he would just move on. The only reason he’s staying put right now is because his partner, also a concept artist, works differently from him. She feels the need to have a creative community around her to inspire and bolster her (and like so many others, has found refuge in Berlin); he does not. And that made me think about myself and how I best do my work. I’m still figuring it out.
I visited this historic and still indefinable city only for the first time last year, and find myself tentatively happy to be here again. It’s now a strange familiar. I’m not sure what parts of it will stick, but I’ve begun to imagine myself a little more in it.
In the spirit of the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 last year, I read First Man, the Neil Armstrong biography by James Hansen. In fact, it was the movie that turned me on to it, though that didn’t get much fanfare—probably because Ryan Gosling played Armstrong straight: the stoic man of very few words, whose inner life and motivations you could only guess at. But that was exactly what most fascinated me about Armstrong. This seemingly implacable man of science and engineering also had the poetry of the skies in him. A passage from Hansen’s book:
The idea that such a non-whimsical man as Armstrong, as a young boy, dreamed of flight “intoxicated” [Norman] Mailer, “for it dramatized how much at odds might be the extremes of Armstrong’s personality.” On the one hand, consciously, Armstrong, the archetypal astronaut-engineer, was grounded in the “conventional,” the “practical,” the “technical,” and the “hardworking.” He resided at the very “center of the suburban middle class.” On the other hand, what Armstrong and the other astronauts were doing in space was “enterprising beyond the limits of the imagination.” Their drive and ambition simply had to have a subconscious element.
That made me think of another passage from—no relation—Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth:
The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute; we often dismiss it as irrational and self-indulgent. But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective. The imagination of scientists has enabled us to travel through outer space and walk on the moon, feats that were once only possible in the realm of myth. Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of his world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.
It is, therefore, a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human brings have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’—a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology. The Neanderthals who prepared their dead companion for a new life were, perhaps, engaged in the same game of spiritual make-believe that is common to all myth makers: ‘What if this world were not all there is? How would this affect our lives—psychologically, practically, or socially? Would we become different? More complete? And, if we did find that we were so transformed, would that not show that our mythical belief was true in some way, that it was telling us something important about our humanity, even though we could not prove this rationally?
Since reading Armstrong’s book that first time, I’ve been holding on to thoughts about the pursuit of transcendence, so often posited as something humans inherently seek, and provides for the centrality of myth in our culture. It struck me particularly, because I feel like so much of what I try to do is the opposite, to be grounded—being of, and engaged with, this time and place—and I’ve been thinking about what it means, for me, to transcend. I am not religious. I am not the most spiritual of people. I do yoga only for exercise. I’ve never felt any desire to experiment with ayahuasca-esque rituals or drugs. And I do wonder why I’m not more curious about alternative dimensions of life—especially after reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror:
Your world realigns in a juddering oceanic shimmer. You feel that your soul is dazzling, delicate, unlimited; you understand that you can give the best of yourself away to everyone you love without ever feeling depleted. This is what it feels like to be a child of Jesus, in a dark chapel, with stained-glass diamonds floating on the skin of all the people kneeling around you. This is what it feels like to be twenty-two, nearly naked, your hair blowing in the wind as the pink twilight expands into permanence, your body still holding the warmth of the day. You were made to be here. You are depraved, insignificant, measureless, you are gorgeous, and you will never not be redeemed. When I took ecstasy for the first time in my friend’s bedroom when I was seventeen and slipped into a sweaty black box of a venue down the street, I felt weightless, like I’d come back around to a truth I had first been taught in church: that anything could happen, and no matter what, a sort of grace that was both within you and outside you would pull you though. The nature of a revelation is that you don’t have to re-experience it; you don’t even have to believe whatever is revealed to hang on to it for as long as you want. In the seventies, researchers believed that MDMA treatment would be discrete and limited—that once you got the message, as they put it, you could hang up the phone. You would be better for having listened. You would be changed.
I realise I’ve been thinking about the idea of transcendence as transcending this world, which is not something that often occupies my mind. However, I do seek moments of transcending myself, to share in the human experiences of others—I guess, for me, through telling people’s stories and, in doing so, better understanding both their humanity and my own.
And yet, what of the self? I read an essay a while back (I can’t find it now) in which the writer reflected on how travel had changed for him as he grew older: it was no longer so much about seeking out experiences for himself, but more about trying to understand a place, other people. That’s certainly been very true for me, but I’ve been feeling lately like I need to redress the balance again and look inward a little more, put myself in the way of beauty for its own sake, and travel in a more participatory and immersed way than as an observer constantly taking notes and looking for the next story to pitch.
Running through the rolodex of my mind, I think one moment in my life stands out as the closest thing to the kind of transcendence Tolentino describes: a kind of deeply felt peace, even when everything around you feels chaotic. It might sound unlikely to you, but—
I’m twenty-two years old and alone, held upright only by the squash of the heaving bodies on a bumpy “chicken bus” in the highlands of Central America. It’s twilight, and the sky is a soft warm pink, and we’re descending the road that takes us to the shores of a beautiful green lake. I’ve been committed to getting lost, to making my own way in an alien place on the other side of the world from home, making mistakes along my journey that would trouble me in a way I had never been troubled before, and that would change me, for better or worse. But then I look out the window and I feel, with a deep certainty, that everything will be okay.
Then, of course, there are the tiny moments of transcendence that intrude in our daily lives from being touched by good literature and art—often just a mere inflection of what already is, but enough that the world, for you, will never quite feel the same again:
Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever. The British critic George Steiner claims that art, like certain kinds of religious and metaphysical experience, is the most “ingressive”, transformative summons available to human experiencing’. It is an intrusive, invasive discretion that ‘queries the last privacies of our existence’; an annunciation that ‘breaks into the small house of our cautionary being’, so that ‘it is no longer habitable in quite the same way as it was before’. It is a transcendent encounter that tells us, in effect: ‘change your life’.
I’ve certainly had turning points that pivoted my life, in small and momentous ways. And I wonder if I might be on the cusp of another one. I want to be.
Dear reader, 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 ❤️
Stories I wrote
“A ‘White Rajah’ returns to Malaysia’s Sarawak, but this time to serve” for South China Morning Post’s This Week in Asia magazine—I wish I could have expanded on more historical detail here, but this was meant to be a short piece. I’ll post some interesting nuggets from my interview with Jason Brooke in an upcoming letter.
“Coming of Age in Exile” as a special report for Between the Lines, a newsletter of Malaysian news founded last year by Marc Lourdes. There were outstanding interviews and other Rohingya youths I didn’t get to profile in this Public Radio International piece I did, and I found a home for them here.
I also have a piece in the second issue of Plates, my friend Dee May’s independent magazine on food culture, about how the indigenous Temiar in the forests of Gua Musang, Malaysia, are fighting against state authorities, loggers, and a durian plantation for the recognition of their ancestral land. It’s a more newsy report to complement the more literary take I did for Virginia Quarterly Review last year.
Recommendations from the road
Amlou — A spread of roasted almonds, argan oil, and honey. Like peanut butter, but the one I had was more liquid, grainer, just better. I deeply regret not buying it by the jarful from Morocco!
An introductory Moroccan song list for the road — courtesy of our Moroccan tour driver, who played these songs on loop for a week straight! By the end, even my relatives were singing to Mok Saib (actually Algerian).
Jojo Rabbit by Taika Waititi — That Rilke poem I quoted at the beginning of this letter appears at the close of the film. It’s a batshit funny take on the holocaust by a Jewish director, with deeply moving moments between mother (played affectingly by Scarlett Johansson) and son. I was surprised I hadn’t heard much about the film (this was before it won Best Adapted Screenplay at the recent Oscars), and only ended up checking out the trailer because I wanted to go to the movies in Berlin and this was playing. There are criticisms that the movie encourages viewers to “look with benign empathy at Nazis”, but personally, I didn’t read it that way.
Babylon Berlin — Love the twenties and a good period drama? You’ll love this. German crime noir series set in the twilight of Weimar Berlin.
Smartphone necklace — I saw this on an acquaintance in Berlin and got one myself. Just gives me one less thing to think about when I’m on the go.
Seasalt Cornwall dresses — cut like vintage tea dresses, with pockets! Pretty good for traveling modestly in warm weather to take a break from the backpacker look.
Films and books
Minding the Gap by Bing Liu — Ostensibly a documentary about skateboarding, but really about three boys trying to become good men, navigating their personal relationships and turning to skateboarding as an emotional place of refuge from emotional and physical abuse. I was speaking of transcendence; there are clear moments of it in this film, which strikes a beautiful, elegiac tone. And this is the shot I remember most: a skateboard marked with the words: “THIS DEVICE CURES HEARTACHE”.
‘Tis by Frank McCourt, but the audiobook — For a few good-intentioned weeks, I did half-hour runs on the treadmill (its hidden history as “atonement machines” in nineteenth-century British prisons is apt) every alternate day, and listened to this. McCourt reads his memoir himself and the liveliness with which he reads it just transports you. For a taster, read an excerpt in the Audm app.
They yell at me in front of the college students who swarm in on Thursdays and Fridays. I wouldn’t mind Greeks yelling at me if they didn’t do it in front of the college girls, who are golden. They toss their hair and smile with teeth you see only in America, white, perfect, and everyone has tanned movie-star legs. The boys sport crewcuts, the teeth, football shoulders, and they’re easy with the girls. They talk and laugh, and the girls lift their glasses and smile at the boys with shining eyes. They might be my age, but I move among them ashamed of my uniform and my dustpan and broom. I wish I could be invisible, but I can’t when the waiters yell at me in Greek and English and something in between or a busboy might accuse me of interfering with an ashtray that had something on it.
Jane by Brett Morgen — A Nat Geo documentary on Jane Goodall and how she came to become “the chimpanzee lady”. Featuring original footage from decades ago, you get to see Goodall when she was still so young, and already so dedicated to what she couldn’t then have known would be her life’s work. Incredibly inspiring.
“Not Gonna Get Us” by Amanda Lee Koe
“Click Here to Kill: The dark world of online murder markets” by Brian Merchant
“Semantic Drift” by Lionel Shriver
“Portrait of Our White Mother Sitting at a Chinese Men’s Table” by Jennifer Tseng
“The Wild West Meets the Southern Border” by Valeria Luiselli
Current ear worm
And now, signing off, following Valentine’s, with lines from Hanif Abdurraqib’s lovely piece on songs, memory, and breakups:
Percussion can be even the gentlest interruption. Here’s a concrete example I give: two people on the telephone, near the end of a conversation, when the line between them falls into the depths of soundlessness. Even one person saying the words “I love you” is percussive. All our affections, coming on the backs of drums.