On Failure

The first time I received an “F” on an exam was in my third-year as an undergraduate, in a Statistics course. Since I never understood the universal language of mathematics, perhaps the grade did not come as a surprise. But failure, when materialized as a letter on a piece of letter, felt surreal, even though we live in a reality that canonizes success and productivity.  Ten years and three degrees later, I am no closer to understanding the meaning of success or the possibility of survival after failure.

As children, as students, the idea of failure was clear. Failure was low grade point average; failure was the mischievous classmate who was always being scolded by the teacher; failure was detention and straight F’s; failure was suspension for drug abuse. We could categorize the failed as “others”, and safely enclose ourselves within the fences of the “saved”. But as adults, we grow to realize that the fence had never existed in the first place, that success was illusory and glory unrealizable. I can no longer claim anything, the prestige of institutions can no longer protect me, and hard work sometimes amounts to emptiness.

Although I do not miss exams, success seemed easier as a student. The goals were attainable and visible, taking the form of a row of A’s down a sheet. The criteria were clear-cut, and once I reached a goal, I moved forward in the game. At the time, the game seemed interminable and I yearned to grow up. But as professionals, we work towards elusive goals that slip out of our grasp. When is it ever enough?

“I am a failure”. That is the phrase to which I wake up every morning and from which I attempt to escape by burying the mind beneath hours of easy entertainment. Having extensive experience as a failure, I’m not sure whether it is possible to “fail better”, as Beckett says. Failing is a lonely place to be, because it is not something one can articulate to others, regardless of whether they too have failed.

I recently learned that the literary community bears more an uncanny resemblance to the academe from which I longed to escape, and the fear is that writing is yet another item to add to my infinite list of failures. Perhaps some artists thrive on failure – Van Gogh and Herman Melville comes to mind. And literature is to some extent fascinated with characters who are failures, who exist on the margins of life. There are countless films about the unremarkable life, quietly lived and quietly erased. Readers might desire to be voyeurs of such lives, but they might not want to be the protagonist.

In my research days, I was fascinated by stories about artists who battled the anxiety of accomplishment. Self-defeatist mentality and a lurking sense of inadequacy meant that works of art were often left incomplete. Fragments are alluring and metaphorically meaningful, and like architectural ruins, they point to wholeness eluded and completion thwarted. The nineteenth-century English architect John Soane, for example, imagined his own construction as a magnificent ruin, prophesying the inevitable triumph of time and self-doubt (more on this in another post, maybe).

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Thomas De Quincey, another Romantic preoccupied with thoughts of failure, lamented his own ability to complete a project:

“[The work] was now lying locked up […] like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct […] instead of surviving me as a monument of wishes at least, and aspirations […] it was likely to stand a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations laid that were never to support a superstructure, – of the grief and ruin of the architect.”

“The grief and ruin of the architect” – this is something I feel keenly. Unfinished stories and a ruinous novel lie somewhere in the labyrinth of notebooks and computer files, next to a thesis that never saw the light of publication. Does the possibility of failure diminish the writing and thinking process in any way? Does it rob the project of meaning? How do I shore these fragments against my ruin? More importantly, how to keep on writing in spite of failure?

In my notebook, I keep a printed copy of a Guardian article in which seven writers recount their experiences of failure. I always keep the sheet with me because I cannot anticipate at what time of the day these words of consolation might come in handy. I read a little, drink some tea, nap or go for a walk, chat with a friend, and eventually some of the fragments coalesce just a little so that writing can continue. So this is the daily process, and every day there is a tiny window during which creativity seems like salvation and I actually consider myself a writer. The next day, I wake up to find the boulder at the bottom of the hill. No matter. Try again. Fail again.

 

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Why I Write

For over a month now, I have stayed away from ink and paper. A sudden storm of self-doubt rendered it impossible to sit down at the desk and produce anything. I battled the irrational, though persistent, fear that failure is a form of contagion, and just as one area of life has already been contaminated by failure, so too would writing become another source of public and private shaming. I felt I needed someone’s permission in order to write, though it was not at all clear from whom I needed this permission. So I simply stayed away. The time that used to be filled with words became filled with random bits of information, with frivolity, and lists of consumerist desires.

For a while I felt oddly light-hearted, unburdened of my own expectations and those of others. I particularly did not miss the competitiveness that plagues writing groups – for all the emphasis on ‘community’, these groups can also be a place for unfairness and insincerity (but more on that later). Yet it became increasingly clear that I was also deprived of the joy that comes with creative work, the sense of fulfillment, of the inchoate and the serendipitous that I never felt with academic work. Without writing, I became a self I no longer recognized, or did not want to recognize, consumed by the vagaries of romantic fantasies and passing trends. During this one month hiatus, I shopped more than I have in a long while; I partied; I squandered time on dating websites and pandered to the whims of men. All that, I convinced my irrational self, were things I was supposed to be doing as a normal woman at this stage in my life, instead of swimming in narratives and dreaming of unborn novels.

But one month was all I could withstand of that side of the self, for the simple reason that without writing, what else is left for someone like me except consumerist obsessions, frivolities, and a largely meaningless day job? It is only through writing that I can learn to be something other than what I have always been.

On a recent trip, I received from friends many parcels of truth: about the poison that is regret; about the inevitable normalization of creative anxiety; about the joy that cannot be taken away. That joy is of course a completely private one, untainted by the fluctuating, and at times facetious, opinions of others. In a room of my own, I hope to rediscover that joy. Do we write for ourselves or for others? To whom do we offer this humble parcel of words and thoughts? What remains of the self outside the expectations of others? These are the questions that bounce off of the walls in my little room. More and more, I am inclined to conclude that while writing is a social product, publicly read and debated, it is ultimately, like all artistic endeavours, a form of personal becoming.

This quote from Haruki Murakami: “In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing…What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself…When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.”

There are times when writing is all discovery and light. Times when strands in the narrative coalesce, or a new facet of a character is dreamed up to change the story entirely. But beyond narratives, writing offers a way to engage with social issues, “to take part in a collective enterprise” as Calvino says, in a way I thought impossible outside the academe. It is a chance to arrest time – personal time and the times in which we live. The novelist’s voice, arguably, has far wider reach than the academic’s, if only I can earn the title of ‘novelist’.

In an effort to climb out of the defeatist narrative, I started re-reading my vast collection of quotes and essays from established writers about the art of writing, and increasingly got the sense that writing has everything to do with the self, not necessarily in a narcissistic way (though artistic production seems to require narcissism to an extent), but in a way that focuses self-examination, and pushes toward self-transformation.

Writing is about the re-writing of one’s own narrative, even if the narrative of failure is stubbornly resistant to editorial changes. Although I do not write anything that can be considered “autobiographical fiction”, so much of the work has been about discovering the limitations of the self and confronting those moments in the past when things seemed unforgiving. The self that writes is the self that Salman Rushdie describes as “a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved.” A rag-picker self, a bowerbird self. We can add to the heap of scraps: spaces lived, wrongs committed, remembered conversations, strangers on trains, digital images, and the thousand lines and narratives on the infinite bookshelf.

These lines from Seamus Heaney are still the most fitting: “I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

 

Remembering 2011

It has been five years since the earthquake devastated the Tohoku region of Japan, killing over 20,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands, five years since the world watched in horror as the towering waves of the tsunami swept across the plains, carrying away houses and human figures. Since that day, I have kept up to date with post-disaster reconstruction efforts and read extensively on the meaning of catastrophe. Like many others, I’ve collected narratives about ruinous homes and stranded boats; about towns torn asunder and familial ties severed by tragedy; about spirits that cannot rest and survivors who could no longer continue the work of survival. I never got the chance to visit the Tohoku region, and the disaster project I had worked on so painstakingly could not be continued due to the volatility of the academic market. Over the past years, I have visited Japan five times, but never went anywhere close to Tohoku, in part out of a sense of anxiety that I might be appropriating the tragedy of others for creative and philosophical ends. I did not want to marvel at the sights of devastation, even as I understood their undeniable allure.

But the disaster, even though not experienced directly, seems to have become a part of my consciousness. Suffering at a distance, suffering witnessed through images and reimagined through language, becomes a sort of lens through which life can be reassessed. In some sense, the narratives from Tohoku saved me since the magnitude of what had happened became a constant reminder that the precariousness of daily life could be endured. Many changes have taken place over the past five years, and I can scarcely recognize the self that first watched the footage of the tsunami on the news. The disaster also showed me that the answers to the questions posed by all catastrophes – questions about resilience, community, and collective moral responsibility – cannot be answered by the limited and limiting discourse of academia. To the academics I met who claimed that the Sublime (the ruins, the terrifying force of nature) matters much more than the reconstruction of devastated homelands, I can only say this: A small hut built out of compassion for those in need surpasses a lifetime of scholarly achievement.

As I build my own figurative hut, in a story that is set partly in 2011, I need to remain constantly aware of those who suffer at a distance. Words are all I have to offer.

I love this speech by Kenzaburo Oe, which – though a bit grand for someone like me – is an important reminder of the value of writing:

“As one with a peripheral, marginal and off-centre existence in the world, I would like to seek how – with what I hope is a modest, decent and humanistic contribution – I can be of some use in a cure and reconciliation of mankind.”

 

Reflections on London

The process of crossing over into a new year seems to put many in the mood for reminisces. This year, as in previous years, I found myself thinking about London. 2015 was the year I returned to London, after a three-year hiatus, but the journey felt very much like a dream, as if it never occurred. The London I remember is still the home I knew years ago, not the spectacle I encountered as a visitor.

In the early days of my stay in London, everything was fresh and precious. London was like nowhere else. The university seemed an interruption, and in the interstices between seminars, I rushed from museum to museum, shop to shop, with the urgency of one who was all too aware of mortality. It was impossible to stop – every day presented new opportunities and new temptations. The city was with me even in the confines of my room – first a small dorm room in Camden with a view of the ubiquitous London planetree; next an elegant Regency house in Hampstead, with a partial view of the Heath; and finally, a flat in Bloomsbury, with a view of Georgian rooftops and the BT Tower which, when seen from afar, always signaled the location of home. Those were solitary days of urban wanderings, bookshop-hopping, instant noodles and freezing winter nights. I was always conscious of my luck and privilege, as I am now conscious of the impossibility of returning to those abodes.

The London I knew was a city of words. There are scrolls of paper that run down the sides of buildings, along the columns or pinned to the doors, inscribed with the words of Londoners. On overcast, foggy days, on buildings by the Thames, we read about Dickens’s ubiquitous fog, “up the river…down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside of a great (and dirty) city.” Crossing Westminster Bridge, we read Wordsworth’s love song to the “ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” of London, “bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” On weekdays during rush hour, pushing past the crowd, we glimpse Eliot’s “Unreal city” inscribed on the Golden Jubilee Bridge. During the daily commute, we read Heaney’s words on the walls of the Underground, describing us, the commuters – “half straggle-ravelled and half strung/ Like a human chain”. While running errands on crowded Saturdays, we see Shelley’s lament scrawled on the greyish façades of Oxford Street: “Hell is a place much like London”. On Primrose Hill, we find Blake’s words, now engraved in stone: “I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”.

One walks through the streets wrapped in words. The walls are palimpsests and each generation adds new words by new Londoners. Layer upon layer of text, until nothing is decipherable.

For a period of time, I lived opposite Dickens’s old house; two minutes from Yeats; five minutes from the Shelleys’ temporary abode; two squares away from Virginia Woolf; three squares away from Eliot’s Faber office. For one year, I also stayed in the house that once belonged to the painter Paul Nash. True to my role as a bibliophile, I frequented bookshops new and old, and compiled my own catalogue of literary spots. That was one of the best parts about living in such a city, the cultivating of pleasant associations with spots in the metropolis. In London I understood the power of psychogeography, the ways in which places trigger something in the mind. Spots became sacred for their connection with beloved writers and artists. Visits to churches and graveyards became pseudo-pilgrimages. London was thus, for a time, a place of love.

There are places to which it is impossible to return, places barred by impenetrable walls of immigration policies, walls built higher and higher each year; places that have changed beyond recognition; places that have sunk beneath the weight of memory. I have always known that London, like some mythic destination, was a place I would lose as soon as I left. In my final months in the city, right before the London Olympics, I took in the city with a kind of frenzy or hunger, like one who did not have long to live. The photos from those months are still unsorted. It is difficult to think about London, or write about it, even though I continually attempt to do so. The city is irrepressible, even as I try to evade its control of my imagination.

After my departure from London (and after failed attempts to apply for another visa), I came to the despairing realization that not only can I not return to London, I do not belong there, have never belonged there; that this city, grand, literary and inspiring, belongs to others; that the words which have guided me for so long have never been intended for one such as I, an outsider, foreigner, alien. The city is not mine, and its narratives – contemporary or past – will never be mine. To whom does London belong? That is a question for another time.

Vestiges of London are always with me – in the hundreds of books on the shelves; in the clothes collected from the shops I frequented; the postcards on the walls; the book bags that can only be found at Daunt Books. Perhaps it is there in the words I write, or perhaps the writing is an ongoing attempt to reclaim a place that has never been there, a place to which it is impossible to return.

Saving My Library

Two and a half years ago, my library of approximately 1000 books was besieged by tiny insects. I woke up one morning to find miniscule, barely visible bugs crawling over the spines of my books, diving into the infinitesimal space in between pages like divers into the sea. Even now, the thought makes me shudder. These pests would grow into white, near transparent ant-like creatures native to the tropical island on which I then lived. I never learned their exact scientific names, but these insects brought about important changes.

I’ve always had a severe case of entomophobia – the irrational fear of insects that persists in spite of the knowledge of my ability to terminate them with ease. En masse, they are terror embodied. To tackle the invasion, I took time off work, and for 3 days and nights, with scarcely any sleep, I removed as many insects as I could, straining my eyesight to catch them in the hinges of the spines or in the crevices between pages. In Buddhist terms, this amounted to a form of massacre, and though I am not religious, the experience did prompt me to become a vegetarian – that was the first significant result of the infestation. Painstakingly, I bagged all the books individually in zip lock bags (according to book conservation websites and the local librarians, this is an effective way to limit the spread of the infestation), and sealed the bags with tape. All throughout the laborious process, I lived in fear and revulsion at the thought of these miniscule entities in close proximity to my skin. After packing all the books, I moved 300 of the most severely affected ones to the campus library of the university where I worked, and deposited them in a giant, industrial-grade freezer (apparently a necessary purchase for most major libraries in humid regions) where they stayed for 2 months in minus 40 degrees celsius – the extreme cold is the only thing that kills all insects, larva and eggs. The remaining books were frozen in my own freezer at regular intervals. For two and a half years, my books remained inside plastic bags, taken out only when needed, and frozen them in batches according to a set schedule. Now that I’m back in dry and temperate Canada, the books are gradually being taken out of their plastic shells, to breathe for the first time in so long and to be aired in the sunlight.

The memory of that frightful experience lingers. Aside from useful information about book preservation, the ordeal also made me rethink my relationship with books and reflect on what precisely they meant to me. Knowledge cannot be eaten away, of course, and I know that even if the worst had happened, I would have been able to re-purchase the majority – if not all – of the books. Yet the issue was never the recoverability of the same texts, but that my first encounter with Hardy, my signed copies with memories of Ishiguro book readings, the marginalia that bespeak fascination – these cannot be replaced. Many bibliophiles perhaps feel the same attachment to the volumes inscribed by experience. In many novels, I had the letter “M” written on the corners of pages, to indicate ideas that could be useful for a novel project. My copy of Rilke’s Letters are filled with dates and personal records in the margins, indicating instances where Rilke’s words offered solace during a time of grief. I collect books from my travels as well, and the library has several volumes inscribed with memories from visits to notable bookshops in various cities. There are also the pieces of ephemera, serendipitously discovered, or the lovingly written messages of dedication.

The infestation was a reminder of what I have and what I might lose. It also made clear that books are tactile objects even as they hold, between their covers, that which exists beyond physical form. The collecting of books also bespeaks a different kind of  growth. What I purchase at different stages in life trace shifts in intellectual inquiry and slight changes in taste. Each section in life seems to be mapped out by books, and many bibliophiles can surely draft an autobiography using books read and cherished. Claire Messud wrote that a personal library maps out one’s intellectual progress. It also maps personal growth. These particular volumes with their individual origin stories and idiosyncratic markings contribute to a more narratorial sense of self at a time when the construction of such narratives has become increasingly difficult in the age of the internet. I tried my best to save my books, but they had saved me first, from times of aloneness and distress. The trouble of dealing with the infestation, and the subsequent shipping of over 1000 volumes back home, had been worthwhile.

 

Post-MLA Reflections

The largest gathering of scholars in the humanities took place at the Vancouver Convention Centre last week. Hours of sunshine alternated with hours of fog and rain. I learned two things at the 2015 convention of the Modern Languages Association (MLA): That there is a world in which academia could be vastly different from what it is today; and that we are far, far away from this world. Much credit must be given to those who try to politicize the professoriat, by unionizing adjuncts and addressing issues of unfairness in the academe. By now, everyone is familiar with the untenable and exploitative working conditions of many part-time faculty members. At a panel for ‘Contingent Academic Labor and Unionization’, there was an impassioned call for solidarity between the adjunct and tenured staff at post-secondary institutions. To arrive at workplace democracy, we must establish collegiality and assume social responsibility. Academics, too, are waving a banner.

According to some surveys, adjuncts make up 50% of all faculty at American institutions. We are the precariat, incessantly walking on tiptoes across an unstable bridge that stretches from one side of the bottomless chasm to the other. But perhaps the image of linear progression across a bridge is misleading, for there is very little sense of arriving on the other side. Instead, a member of the precariat engages in a circular loop of applications, teaching, rejections, more applications, until the motions become almost mechanical, and the enthusiasm once felt towards something like the MLA has dwindled to curiosity at best. Regardless of the social status that comes with being a ‘college professor’, at times I long for a stable 9-5 job, without weekend obligations or forever elusive goals. Perhaps the lifestyle of the salaried bourgeoisie brings to mind Nietzsche’s Last Men, who lack passion and commitment, whose lives are sparsely filled with ‘little pleasures’. But having been on the wobbly bridge for so long does make me envy those who are able to relax their weary limbs and set up camp for the night on secure, solid grounds.

I like the word ‘contingent’, for it brings to mind ideas about free will and fate; permanency and ephemerality; the possibility of catastrophe; it also connotes the physical touch (from the Latin tangere), or the act of bringing together. Google shows that the use of the word ‘contingent’ has increased in recent decades; we are living in the age of chance, or hazards and precariousness.

I wonder if academia itself is contingent, an accidental formation created at a particular time, under particular historical circumstances. Those circumstances changed, and another chance formation might occur, replacing the current one. Since the start of the debate on the ‘value of the humanities’, there have been countless articles extolling the benefits of deep reading and complex writing. Centres for the humanities popped up all throughout North America and the UK, and scholarship has gradually shifted towards interdisciplinarity. All this is to avert disaster. But during a panel on Romanticism (my supposed speciality), while I listened to convoluted prose that produced trailing sentences filled with too many adjectives and arguments-within-arguments too tiring to disentangle, I wondered if the effort to make ourselves unique, valuable, irreplaceable has ironically contributed to the devaluing of the humanities and the alienation of academia.

A curious event occurred on the second day of the Convention: A group of young people walked through the building holding up banners and shouting ‘From Ferguson to MLA, Black Lives Matter’. Most people looked on in bafflement and went about their business. This was curious – Did the protesters assume that scholars of the humanities would think black lives did not matter? Most scholars are probably liberals who would, at least in their research, fight for the underdogs, the disenfranchised, the oppressed. This kind of scholarship is a form of empathy, surely. Given this fact, it is curious how talks about empathy or ethics are often frowned upon in academia. I failed to get a job because I used the word ‘ethics’ in the teaching statement (not connoting a form of indoctrination, as was assumed, but a way of living and being in the Aristotelian sense); and on another occasion, I was told that a project on disaster has nothing to do with ethics or empathy. How can we approach catastrophe and its aftermath without thinking about the ethics of social response and collective responsibility? Not everything is about the sublime, or about perfectly crafted sentences.

All the talk about workplace democracy, about fairness and positive change comes down to one thing – the importance of empathy. On a panel about Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, there was much talk about the importance of compassion – I greatly respected these scholars of German literature, because such talks are rare and perhaps even unwelcome in some scholarly circles. They discussed how some texts invite the reader to respond empathically, and how scholars, as serious readers of serious literature, can mediate that response. There was a subtle call for the ‘moralization of literary criticism’, to borrow the title of one of the talks.

How can the humanities carve out a space for reflection and intellectual inquiry in the age of neoliberalism and technological advancement? By bringing out the true value of the humanities – which is the same ideal upheld by many of the writers whose works we teach and analyze. Yeats wrote that literature is the ‘principal voice of the conscience’, and that a great writer will devote many years to the study of moral issues. Even though the university has become a profit-driven corporation, and academic publishing is primarily about career advancement, there is still a chance that literary criticism can also be ‘a voice of conscience’. And unless we can practice empathy in the workplace, unionization will not yield the desired results. Until we can see that the value of what we teach and write does not reside in grants, publications, academic celebrity, or tenure, academia will remain in a state of contingency.

An Account of Formosa

In 1703, a fair-skinned, golden-haired young man arrived in London, and announced himself to be a native of the island of Formosa, or modern-day Taiwan. Adopting the name of George Psalmanazar (c. 1680-1763), the man was the author of an elaborate hoax that beguiled the British public and baffled Royal Society experts. For three years, Psalmanazar was accepted as a Formosan aristocrat, an eater of twigs and raw meat from the capital city of Xternetsa, his fair skin accounted for by the fact that Formosan aristocrats lived in subterranean caves, their complexion protected from the glare of sunlight. Psalmanazar’s popular but false ethnographic study, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan (1704), described in great and fantastical detail Formosan customs such as weddings, funerals and religious rites, supplemented with maps and engravings.

psalmanazar3

On the one hand, Psalmanazar depicted the fictional Formosans as a skilful and industrious people, capable of art such as porcelain ware. On the other hand, he catered to popular conceptions of the savage Other, and described cannibalistic rituals and sacrifices of infants to an ox-shaped god. One of the most remarkable facets of Description of Formosa was the imaginary Formosan language, invented by Psalmanazar, using an elaborate system of alphabets that showcased his linguistic ingenuity (in spite of the fact that he had no knowledge of any Asian languages). Psalamanazar was eventually forced to reveal his deception in 1706. Biographical details about his life remain scarce, though scholars speculate that he was originally from France, and had previously posed as a native of Japan.

Books have been written about Psalmanazar’s exploits, and the relation between his false representation (of himself and of Formosa) and the complex mapping of Asia in the European imagination. Psalmanazar’s story demonstrates that there is a great deal of mythmaking when it comes to imagining other cultures and other languages; we are no less guilty of this in the age of globalization. I would like to jump from eighteenth-century Formosa to present-day Taiwan, which now engages – ironically – in its own practice of mythmaking.

I worked at a Taiwanese university for 1.5 years (as Assistant Professor in English), motivated mostly by the bleak state of the academic job market. A few months after my PhD was submitted, an opportunity arose in Taiwan; I took it, hesitantly at first, but later more enthusiastically, spurred on by articles exploring the benefits of working and teaching in Asia. However, my experience was far from ideal.

At a time when the academic job market in the Anglo-American world motivates new graduates to seek employment outside their usual geographic or cultural boundary, I feel it is important to present a more sobering view of working in Asia. There are always potential difficulties with working in a different culture, but what concern me here are the difficulties that result from racial politics. Upon my initial arrival in Taiwan, I was fully prepared to try my best at Chinese, while lecturing and writing mainly in English. However, during my first week at work, I was told that I would have to teach fully in Chinese, because, in short, I am ethnically Asian and therefore cannot be trusted to teach accurate English to the students (though English is my primary language, and I have always lived in English-speaking countries, not to mention the three degrees in English literature). The mixed cultural background that I had supposed to be an asset was instead a major obstacle in my professional development in Taiwan.

I failed to persuade my superiors that my reading knowledge of Chinese did not extend far beyond restaurant menus; that I am not able to write academic prose in Chinese; or that an Asian person does not automatically speak English with an Asian accent. Those statements rang hollow because they destabilized the existing ideology in Taiwan, which insists that native proficiency in English is possible only for those of Anglo-American or European descent – or to put it more crudely, those who are white-skinned. (In Taiwan, I found there is rarely acknowledgement of the fact that English is but one of the twenty-four official languages spoken in Europe, and that most people of European descent do not consider English their mother tongue).

With a mixture of shock and indignation, I lectured using Google Translate projected onto a big screen; when I accidentally used English words for which I could not find the Chinese equivalent, I would be scolded by the departmental administrator (who had asked students to report such instances of slippage to him; and the administrative staff at the university held tremendous power). I was also derided for my inability to understand much of the complex Chinese used in meetings; at one point I was publicly labelled ‘an embarrassment to the department’, and that was considered polite. I got along well with my European colleagues, and had no problems with them, though it made me uncomfortable to learn that they were given the opportunity to teach fully in English, and were not expected to complete any administrative tasks. The picture is complicated by the fact that some Taiwanese colleagues lectured partially in English, but they were educated at the National Taiwan University, the top institution in the country, and were therefore judged differently.

To equate skin color with linguistic or literary capability is to assert racist ideology. It also presents an instance of mythmaking. As Psalmanazar’s forgery proved, the boundary between fiction and truth is easily blurred at times. If Psalmanazar’s account appears shot through with eighteenth-century misconceptions about the East, then the Taiwanese construction of the ideal English speaker is equally laden with prejudice and intolerance, upholding spurious claims about authenticity.

For 1.5 years, I spoke broken Chinese from Monday to Friday, faced verbal abuse from administrative staff, and experienced Taiwan as a place that fluctuated wildly between civility and cruelty – Psalmanazar was ironically accurate in his suggestion of that binarism. My Chinese improved, though my English deteriorated and my knowledge of English language and literature was continually questioned. Eventually, I resigned. The racial issue was not the only reason for my resignation – there were plenty of other problems such as sexual politics, lack of resources, pedagogical difficulties, unfair evaluation processes etc., but I won’t go into those. It was not easy giving up a tenure-track position with good benefits, but in the end, I could not shake the sense that all the years I had spent studying English literature had boiled down to nothing – or rather, nothing but my skin color.

While this is a personal experience, it is by no means confined to the personal context. According to Annie Chen, founder of Teachers Against Discrimination in Taiwan (TADIT), non-Caucasians frequently face racial discrimination in their job hunts, particularly in the education sector. The discussion board hosted by TADIT is filled with stories of the victimization endured by non-Caucasians, who are usually offered lower pay than their Caucasian co-workers (regardless of education or experience), or turned down for jobs due to the assumption that their language ability would be below standard. The ESL (or EFL) education market in Asia is notorious for hiring based on skin color (frequently, though not always)  without checking credentials; this has resulted in many under-qualified instructors gaining steady work in the education sector (usually in tutorial schools). While Taiwanese hospitality is a commonly observed fact, it is sometimes not extended to those who do not fit into crudely formed preconceptions about race and identity. Discrimination is, of course, a complex issue, extending far beyond Taiwan, and non-Caucasians are not the only ones who face potential victimization. The equation of skin color with language proficiency is also implicated in the complex politics of Asian identity and self-representation. Moreover, discrimination raises broader questions about the limits of cross-cultural interaction, and the fight for equality is an on-going struggle in the progress towards global inhabitation.

As the job market becomes international, nomadic scholars might encounter such racial issues more and more. The fictions perpetuated by racial prejudice obfuscate certain truths – that language skills have nothing to do with skin color or ethnicity; that there are cosmopolitan citizens of the world who speak multiple languages and know multiple cultures; that racial discrimination is a corrosive form of social violence that disseminate falsehoods as outrageous as those of Psalmanazar’s Formosa. Any sense of cohesion we might hope to build as a world relies, in part, on the recognition of these truths.

 

On Beauty

In 1869, American writer Henry James wrote to his father describing his first meeting with the English novelist George Eliot (or Mary Ann Evans), who was 49 years old at the time:

“She is magnificently ugly,” James wrote. “She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth…Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her.”

James goes on to counter his judgement of ‘magnificent ugliness’ with praise of Eliot’s ‘delightful expression’, ‘a voice soft and rich as that of a counselling angel’, her inner store of knowledge, and ‘a great feminine dignity and character in these massively plain features’. Eliot herself might be said to be the opposite of her character Hetty Sorrel, from Adam Bede, whose attractive appearance does not correspond to inner beauty. The juxtaposition between internal and external beauty has long preoccupied writers and philosophers, but in an age that is so fixated on surfaces, has the boundary between inner and outer been gradually eroded?

Beauty, a once elusive concept, has been rendered straightforward in modern media, a beauty promising health, prosperity, and success, even love. Yet beauty is meant to be multifaceted, not fixed in the image of the decorated waif. As Umberto Eco’s tome, On Beauty, shows, the idea of the beautiful is transient and fluid, shifting iridescently from one era to the next (in spite of what sociobiologists claim), from one culture to the next, so that at one point what developed cultures in the 21st century might consider to be hideous was upheld as the paragon of beauty.

But is it perhaps the case that we fail to carve out a space for differences? Anxiety surrounding women’s body image indicates the failure to move beyond one totalizing idea of what constitutes beauty. The female body has long been the battle ground of ideologies surrounding beauty. Almost every woman I know has struggled with issues of insecurity, forever shadowed by the rhetoric of ‘not enough’ – not thin enough, not sexy enough, not curvy enough, not tall enough, not pale enough, not sweet enough, not feminine enough. And the list goes on. It is bewildering that in a finite lifetime we should be exposed to such an interminable list of demands to be everything other than we are.

The problem of beauty, like the problem of wealth, is a distributive one, though unlike wealth, it cannot be accumulated – at least not without financial backing, ironically. As the National Geographic article points out, we are continually frustrated and confused by the fact that in an age that strives towards equality all are not created equal. That inequality is heightened by the insistence on homogenization, as exemplified by the culture of cosmetic surgery. Why is it that we can applaud all manner of monstrosity in popular media, praise incongruous planks of concrete as great architecture, sloppily-written pornography as literature, yet we sometimes have difficulty seeing the good in someone (which might be ourselves) who does not conform to media-saturated standards of beauty? If a woman as extraordinary as Eleanor Roosevelt could name the lack of a pretty face as her one regret in life, then we need to ask what value our world places on all the accomplishments and contributions that stem from an entirely non-physical kind of beauty?

In the world of romance, the idea of the beautiful is even more problematic. Every bookish girl has perhaps dreamed of discovering her inner Jane Eyre, and delivering Jane’s impassioned speech to a Mr. Rochester:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you!”

That beauty, like wealth, is a form of capital in the market of love might make it difficult for many to see the value of a particular kind of ‘impoverishment’. And unlike Mr. Rochester, many would leave without hesitation. Beauty exists in the eye of the beholder – yes, but human affection is neither simple nor lasting. When the beholder ceases to behold our optimal selves, what are we left with aside from a husk stripped of its rose-tinted exterior? Endymion, in Keats’s revision of the myth, gives up the hunt for the goddess and embraces the Indian maid, only to discover that the maid was in fact the goddess herself; this is Keats’s attempt to reconcile internal and external beauty. But in the world outside poetry, the dangerous allure of the unattainable does not turn us into an Aeolian shepherd, but rather the dog in Aesop’s Tales, staring dreamily at its own reflection. Beauty remains that which enthralls and enchants us – we are done and undone by beauty. We can continue to tell ourselves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that it is only skin deep, but ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ will continue to fracture families and precipitate conflict.

If beauty is truth, and truth beauty, then in our never-ending quest for perfect beauty (exemplified by the cosmetics industry and plastic surgery), we have lost sight of what is true. In the culture of superficial judgments, we are all judges and victims. Improving one’s appearance and polishing one’s self-image on social media at times comes at the cost of neglecting or even corroding one’s internal self, that which truly needs tending to. The entanglements of visual spectacle and desire have created ‘mind-forged manacles’ with which we have shackled our true selves. But to accept that perfection cannot exist in the self in the physical sense is also to see that perfection does not exist in the form of celebrities and models and ideal loves. The cult of the celebrity, a baggage left over from the Romantic era, has done us much harm, nowadays deepened by digital technology that easily disseminates these images of seeming perfection to all corners of the world, creating the illusion that perfection exists, that it is desirable and attainable.

In the world of love, such judgements are perhaps even more evident, as online dating and problematic apps such as Tinder capitalize on the ideal of external beauty, and make it so much easier to ‘walk away’ from that which fails to meet the illusory standard. Any value beneath the surface is no longer mined, but simply left buried. A show like Mad Men has gone some way towards debunking the myth that only a typically beautiful woman, admired by many, is worthy of love, for Don Draper’s marriages to the statuesque Betty and the alluring Megan (dancing provocatively to Bisou Bisou) have hardly presented pictures of enduring love. In interpersonal relationships, we need to stop treating one another as disposable consumerist goods – the invasion of market mentality into the domain of love is, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues, what renders love so rare in our liquid modernity. To find that which endures, we must demand of ourselves patience and sympathy, instead of giving in to the impulse to press ‘delete’. Moreover, the pursuit of the non-existent ideal, while it is a very human pursuit, is a dream from which we ought to awaken. We need to move forward to a post-Romantic world – the intrinsically and tragically Romantic pursuit of the blue flower or the chimeric spirit that forever recedes from us is no longer a sustainable activity for the mind.

Positive media have encouraged the cultivating of self-respect to counter the insidious effects of the fashion and cosmetic industries and the culture of dating. Yes, it is true that everyone could benefit from the kind of self-respect described by Joan Didion, a sense of one’s intrinsic worth that ‘free[s] us from the expectations of others, [and] give[s] us back to ourselves’. But as a society, we need to do more than that. It is all very well to encourage therapeutic or spiritual processes of arriving at a more sustained sense of self-worth. But we cannot leave individuals to pine away, hoping therapy or the occasional positive media would help, while exulting those who just happened to win the genetic lottery. For one, cases of eating disorders, depression and even suicide comport us to act humanely in the face of inequality. We need to redefine the concept of beauty – it is not simply a matter of internal vs. external. We need to accept that perfection does not exist in an imperfect world.

Much of the resistance to accept differences, to move beyond superficiality, is simply a resistance against changing one’s mentality, arguably the hardest thing to do. But just as George Eliot gave Henry James a completely new meaning of the word ‘beauty’, so, too, might our culture encounter an idea, a movement, or a system that spurs us onward to a different world. Philosopher Cora Diamond, when discussing Wittgenstein, cites James’s encounter with Eliot as an example of ‘conceptual reorientation’:

“She, that magnificently ugly woman, gives a totally transformed meaning to ‘beauty’. Beauty itself becomes something entirely new for one, as one comes to see (to one’s own amazement, perhaps) a powerful beauty residing in this woman…In such a case, she is not judged by a norm available through the concept of beauty; she shows the concept up, she moves one to use the words ‘beauty’ and ‘beautiful’ almost as new words, or as renewed words. She gives one a new vocabulary, a new way of taking the world in one’s words, and speaking about it to others”.

So we need to ‘show the concept up’, the concept constructed by ourselves through generations. Perhaps education – or art, or popular culture – is a good starting point for change, for assessing the damage already done. In any case, it is possible to see the world anew and to speak about beauty in new ways.

 

On the Modern Bookshop

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Tucked away in the affluent neighborhood of Daikanyama, in Tokyo, is Tsutaya Books, a design gem and book emporium that frequently features on lists of the best bookshops in the world. Large glass panels and white, woven facades distinguish the three-pavilion complex that houses a diverse range of books (in Japanese and English), plus an upscale restaurant, a Starbucks, and a travel concierge in the travel books section. There is no denying the pleasure of walking through the gleaming spaces, or of sitting at a large wooden desk with a view of the majestic trees outside the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The space spelled perfection – no dust, no insects, no stray books displaced. Being a bibliophile, bookshops are my natural habitat, but there was something jarring about Tsutaya. From the cafe to the design section, Tsutaya was mainly frequented by the trendy and wealthy customers who reside in the neighborhood. With the exception of a few arts students, it was difficult to spot someone who did not carry a luxury bag. Setting aside the affluence of Daikanyama as a contributing factor, I wondered whether the glamorization of reading, coupled with the commercialization of the modern bookshop, does not ironically spell the end of the book.

I grew up in the vicinity of a modern bookshop, and it provided much-needed sanctuary during adolescent years of existential confusion. That branch of Chapter’s (a chain of bookstores in Canada) was the place where I collected cheap paperback copies of classics, discovered contemporary prize-winners, and honed the art of book collecting. It was not a luxurious place, though modern, and on most Friday evenings, it was mainly filled with  students, bookworms or those looking for a birthday card. The shop will be closed at the end of the month, and its demise – alongside the demise of numerous similar establishments – signals the end of an era in the history of the bookshop. North American chains, such as Barnes & Nobles, probably occupy a space between the cozy, ever so slightly dilapidated secondhand shops of Europe and the grand, luxurious bookshops like Tsutaya. Perhaps glamorization is an effective marketing scheme, and by rendering the act of reading chic and sexy, bookshops not only hope to sell more books but also to encourage reading. Perhaps. At Eslite, a grand bookstore in Taipei (with chains in other Asian countries), I once came across a book signing event, in which an author encouraged young people to become novelists because it is now fashionable; true to the spirit of his book, many readers in attendance carried Prada bags and scrawled notes on the newest iPads. In many cafes in Taipei, there are piles of English books sitting in corners, by the window, or used to enhance the look of certain products. Vintage books have become fetish objects, and the bookworm is no longer a denigrated character, but a persona that many willingly assume, while relaxing in a gorgeous space decorated with books.

The linking of literature with fashion can be damaging to the former, much like the rising practice of giving students monetary reward for every book read – the surface reward (whether it’s $5 or a glamorous public image) erodes the intrinsic value of reading. We need to not just read, but to be seen reading. The spectacle of the reader means that the act of reading, and not just the physical books themselves, has been completely consumed by the market, like all the other arts. While shops like Tsutaya were founded with the ideal of resisting the advent of digital media, I wonder if they’re not as detrimental to reading as Facebook and tablets, if not more so. British novelist Will Self recently published a verbose panegyric on the death of literary fiction, and he points out how ‘The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestation’. When the culture of reading (and concomitantly, writing) becomes saturated with glamor, ruled by trends, it will be purely a matter of easy, fast consumption, without difficulties or complications, much like fashion. This process has already begun, of course – no other cultural conditions could have allowed for the flourishing of Fifty Shades of Grey. In an age of intellectual laxity, it is no wonder that books (particularly difficult ones that will not be read) have been reduced to merely decorative objects or status symbols in so many places in the world. When I see vintage Penguin paperbacks and literary paraphernalia such as fountain pens – which are now extremely popular outside western culture – I feel a sense of sadness, despite my ardent love for these objects, because they are remnants of a time that is no more. In an era where solitary reading, deep thought and intellectual engagement are unfashionable, what could such objects be except consumerist trends and empty signifiers pointing to a vacuous beyond?

So, the luxury bookshops, for all their convenience and beauty, will never replace their precursors. Of course bookshops are necessarily commercial spaces, but they should also be spaces for thinking, for imaginary journeys, for serendipitous encounters with that perfect sentence. Perhaps there are some similarities between the luxury bookshop and virtual spaces that encourage bibliophilia and reading. The newly launched My Independent Bookshop, backed by Penguin, allows bookworms to create their own ‘gateway to brand new worlds’. While choosing books for one’s own shop and choosing the ‘wallpaper’ can be quite fun, it is also a bit unnerving, since this is a shop that one can never enter, pages that one can never touch. But for every book bought, a percentage of the sale goes to a local, independent bookshop, so the website is linked to the spaces of real bookshops.

There is something about luxury bookshops that, like the virtual one, feels slightly removed from the physical, humble, and highly subjective experience of reading. Perhaps that sense of the unreal stems from the shop’s seeming perfection, or from the fact that many books (in shops such as Eslite) are wrapped in plastic to protect them from dust and humidity, thus rendering browsing impossible. Jean-Luc Nancy provides superb descriptions of the bookshop experience in his On the Commerce of Thinking: On Books and Bookstores –

‘[The reader in a bookstore] doesn’t devour, but tastes, inhales, sniffs, or licks the substance. The bookstore is a perfumery, rotisserie, patisserie: a dispensary of scents and flavours through which something like a fragrance or bouquet of the book is divined, presumed, sensed. It is where one gives oneself or finds an idea of the book’s Idea, a sketch, an illusion, a suggestion. Perhaps it speaks of what one was looking for, what one was hoping for.’

Nancy recognises the full sensory, even sensual, experience of the bookshop. And the scent of books beckons the bibliophile forward. Nothing smells as intoxicating as a secondhand bookstore, the scent that floods the mind with memories and an ardent sense of curiosity.

‘Even touching books communicates to the reader particular impressions: the weight, grain, or suppleness through which one thinks one can discern the inflections of a voice or else the fluctuations of a heart.’

Wandering through narrow corridors lined with shelves or turning yellowed pages that carry the scent of ages – these are bookshop experiences that are rapidly becoming obsolete. I think of the old bookshops on Charing Cross Road; G. David in Cambridge; and Shakespeare & Co. in Paris – the places where we might ‘find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being […and] balance ourselves after the splendors and miseries of the streets’ (Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting’). The complex spaces and shelves of these shops in a way mirror the Gutenberg mind, from the dust-covered corners of which something new or old always springs forth at the invitation of the familiar scent. I would gladly exchange designer armchairs and Starbucks coffee for such spaces again. It is not just the loss of beautiful vintage volumes that I mourn, but the loss of a solitary, internal life that is deeply entangled with reading, of life that leaps forth from words, of the infinitude of being and feeling suggested by the well-worn pile that accompanies the perpetual traveler.

Nancy says it best, and deserves to be quoted here in full:

‘For, in the end, the Idea of the book will always, from its very conception, have been the Idea of its reading, and through that reading, the Idea of another book, of another writing that continues on from the first […] In fact reading does not lead to more reading, but to everything else, to what is sometimes called action and sometimes experience, where we rub up against the illegible real.

All the same, it is only by always reading anew that one can discard books one by one. Throw them not on the pyre or into oblivion, but launch them further and more profoundly into what should, with just cause, be called the bookstore of the soul, the free space of a devouring of and by the pure Idea, the labyrinth of books that are read, jotted on, forgotten, and dust-covered, the books learned and forgotten by heart, the creasing of the edges of pages whose image always comes back because they contain certain precious words.’

 

Fast Fashion

I’m taking a break today, from the usual research routine, and have decided to comment on the much-discussed Chanel show for the A/W 2014 collection. A critical reading of fashion is not something I’ve ever attempted before (though I do enjoy fashion), so this is quite random and informal.

chanel-fall-2014-620x413[Images from Garance Dore]

Over the past few days, many online magazines were flooded with images of the purpose-built Chanel Superstore, housed in the Grand Palais in Paris. Known for his innovative runway designs, Karl Lagerfeld amazed the fashion world with his reimagining of luxury pieces as supermarket products: Iconic quilted bags came wrapped as packs of meat; rows of tin cans, lined in Warhol-esque style, bore the Chanel logo; the names of products – like Coco Chanel Coco Pops – were nods to the founder of the house. Models strolled down the supermarket aisles as if they were customers, carrying baskets or carts, and quequing up at the check-out. Judging from the photographs, the details of the elaborate stage set were remarkable. There is a certain whimsical quality to the idea, and the show was deemed a great success. At the end of the show, guests were invited to enter the market and take anything from the aisles. Predictably, the crowd descended and fought over the coveted items stamped with the Chanel logo (though they were asked to return the goods at the end). Lagerfeld understood that if you stick the renowned interlocking C’s (or what some in the Chinese media have coined ‘The Cash-Cash’ sign) on anything, consumers will hunger for it, even if it is only a bottle of ketchup.

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chanel-fw14_garance-dore_detail_5[Images from Garance Dore]

The debates that ensued centered on the complex relationship between fashion and consumerism. The mode of consumerism fueled by the fashion industry is elitist yet seemingly egalitarian – while the few decides the trends, and only the few can actually afford the luxury goods, the many can possess a tiny slice of the luxury world. Fashion is, in this sense, a champion of capitalism, and erodes the boundary between luxury and necessity. By drawing a direct link between designer goods and everyday products of the supermarket, Lagerfeld not only taps into the consumerist psyche, but also creates an illusion of affordability, which ironically highlights the fissure between the wealthy and the poor – a fissure that the fashion industry has, sadly, helped to widen.

Fashion’s flirtation with food is by no means confined to the Chanel show. Both the Kate Spade and Charlotte Olympia shows this year featured bags that resemble Chinese takeaway boxes (an idea that Lagerfeld had already executed for the 2010 Chanel collection). But the most notorious reference to food was undoubtedly the Moschino x Jeremy Scott collection in Milan, which made explicit, kitsch references to McDonald’s, with models wearing clothes that resemble the red-and-yellow uniforms, and carrying bags that imitate Happy Meal boxes (costing $1265). Though the show was praised by many in the fashion industry, it enraged real-life McDonald’s employees, who accused the brand of mocking their difficult, low-wage lives. In an interview with The New York Times, Scott claimed that he was just trying to have a little fun, and that the clothes should be seen as humorous, irreverent but gleeful.

The Moschino show is a case of ethical blindness, in my view. The critics were right to point out the inappropriateness of selling a uniform-like dress with a price tag well beyond the reach of those who are forced to wear that uniform on a daily basis. The rich might well dapple in the lifestyles of the less wealthy (going to supermarkets, eating fast food), as if it were a form of alternative tourism, but they know they can return to the comfort of their wealth at the end of the day. Additionally, to promote fattening food in an industry that consistently encourages anorexic thinness and eating disorder (particularly in women) is nothing short of ironic.

Some have read both the Chanel and Moschino shows as examples of fashion being a little facetious and critiquing itself. But is contemporary fashion capable of this critique? Fashion as represented in these shows speak not of self-referential reflection but of excess and consumerist frenzy. Perhaps Lagerfeld’s show signals that fashion is no longer what it was in the days of Coco Chanel (especially with regard to the representation of women). If luxury is meant to be something in which we luxuriate, in which we revel, then these fashion pieces are not luxury since they encourage fast consumption and fast forgetting, prompting the consumer to move on quickly to the next trend. Originally associated with debauchery and sexual pleasure, luxury has now become mostly linked with the possession of certain products or the enjoyment of a particular lifestyle. Robbed of its association with transgression and rebelliousness, fashion has, in a way, become pure market, much like McDonald’s. Our large appetites lead us to consume so much in the market without reflection, hence the excesses of shopping and the debts accumulated. Fashion coupled with fast food means consumption in the double sense of shopping and eating – voraciously, insatiably, self-destructively.

Time to re-read Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin.

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