Tag: writing

aesthetics of desolation

Life May 17, 2020

I haven’t been active on this blog lately except for the time when I posted a bunch of overdue edits that I took over the year before the pandemic. (Please check them out! I am quite proud of them.) Truth be told, I haven’t been writing much at all. I am not going to make up a lame excuse that I have been busy or piled with work, because time is what everyone has left at this time. Lately I have been spending increasingly concerning amount of time on Netflix, been paranoid about every slightest, briefest interaction I make on the streets, however insignificant that may be. I worry a lot — which surely can be an absolute time-killer — about a lot of things: my flat back in London for which I am still paying rent, my short-lived writing career that ended in a blink of a season, or what I am going to be like just in a year (because it is indeed a strange time, and there’s no way of telling what lies ahead. But that is a whole other rant.)

I have been productive in the most superficial sense — I have written one essay, did some translation work, found some passing moments to actually sit myself down and read, and cooked. I haven’t exactly done nothing, but it definitely does not feel like something. Time is fleeting away, and the conscious effort of lifting myself up from my bed every afternoon is a constant, flinching reminder how ungrateful I am of the ephemerality of time. If you look up the definition of time, you will get this: the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. Time is not just a set of numbers you see on your clock. It is a measurement of your existence — in its totality and necessity. Time is indefinite, but our time isn’t. So to think that I am letting some of my pivotal hours of existing slip by isn’t the most calming topic to mull over.

This term I took a class that explores how narrative frames cities (or how cities frame narratives) in East Asian Literature. One of the works we studied was Zhang Ailing’s novella Love in a Fallen City, and it is about Liusu, who comes from a very traditional family meets a Westernized womanizer Liuyuan and falls in love. They exhibit feelings toward each other throughout the narrative and yet because Liusu’s goal is to get Liuyuan to marry her (for the benefit of her family and her social reputation) and Liuyuan’s isn’t, they have a constant discord in their emotions. Only when there is a bombing is Hong Kong, they realize nothing else truly matters other than each other’s presence. This is the moment where the commercialization and frivolity of emotions are rendered meaningless.

Zhang calls this the ‘aesthetics of desolation’. She defines the word desolation as the sense of destruction and emptiness that comes from destruction. The perception of annihilation that is caused by external, and often physical forces, which ultimately leads to the feeling of lamentation and sorrow over what is being lost. But why is it aesthetic? Where does the beauty come from? How is the scene of your world crumbling down before your eyes be in any way tasteful? In the grounds of ruin and ineluctable doom, what could you possibly witness?

Only at this strange and surreal time I thought of this phrase. The aesthetics of desolation. The aesthetic is that it provides revelation. The significance of ‘what really matters’. The destruction of our physical walls also mean that stripping the worldly concerns away. Our reality is vulgar, and people are desolate and solitary. So right now I am thinking about what really matters. I think about the people I left behind, things that I didn’t have a chance to say because I was scared. I think about the ‘thank you’s and ‘I love you’s that I have been too petty to use. The time I didn’t call my parents, the time I bailed on my friends because I didn’t feel like walking the distance, or the time I avoided a goodbye which little did I know then, would’ve been the last. I would have said plenty if I could to go back. But we can’t, can we? We live with these losses.

We all have a list of things that we think that matter, but are you going to think about those in your deathbed? When the world comes crashing around you or everything you have believed and known dissipates, are those still the things you are going to hold onto? We live in a streak of actions and choices, and in a certain trajectory that we think is proper and standard because apparently, there is a point to all these. There better be a fucking point, because I hope to God that I am not thinking about apartment-searching in Bloomsbury or the futility of Tinder in my deathbed. Because I am pretty sure they are not what really matters. And I certainly hope not. 

I am trying to untangle some thoughts as I write so bear with me. I guess what I am trying to say is, I am trying to grapple with what matters the most to me. There is a constant motif of loss in my life, but the resurgence of this age-old notion is especially palpable right now. But I am trying to put it to good use. It is a time of desolation. And in times of desolation there is always an unease about the unstable and turbulent everyday. I just hope we can use this unease to really look into the unprocessed, undiluted thoughts of ourselves. To find out what really matters.

So wherever you are, I hope you are safe. And I hope you find what you are looking for.

if you think you know so well about yourself, you’re probably wrong

Life November 14, 2019

I have always been really plagued about this whole existential notion of who I am. It is probably one of the most frequently asked questions, yet somehow it seems like we can only answer partially to that. Of course, other than the most simplistic answers like your name, age, profession, or whatnot. No one knows as much uncensored particulars about me as me. But every time I am asked to describe myself, that simple ‘so who really are you’ conundrum, I always get stuck. It scares me even. As the subject of my own depiction, ironically I find it difficult to talk about myself. I end up giving extremely superficial answers, and that is because I genuinely don’t know how to answer. Or if I even deserve to.

I was reading Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart today (God bless, it’s been such a long time since I read for fun) and there was an extremely intriguing line — “But when I talk about myself, all sorts of other factors — values, standards, my own limitations as an observer — make me, the narrator, select and eliminate things about me, the naratee.” This. This sentence was so striking because it couldn’t be any more accurate than this. After all, the portraits we have of ourselves are self-constructed. We retain the purest information of ourselves and regardless of the unrestricted access of the data we always tend to filter some out to our own subjectivity. Let’s put it this way, if we are writing a story about ourselves, we have full authority to decide what kind of detail we want in the narrative. We can omit, edit, and distort. Authors are rarely reliable to the fullest. And it really is unsettling to remind myself that I will never be able to establish an objective depiction of myself. So if you really think if you know about yourself, chances are, you’re wrong.

But I do admire people who can give a clear-cut sentence description about themselves. And not just because that is something I can’t do myself. I doubt that these are invariably accurate in essence, but it means that they are striving to live by what they say about themselves. It’s like a promise to yourself that you want to fit into that certain image you’ve created for yourself. You craft that image for yourself and by saying it out loud to others you impose a non-retractable boundary to that image. Sometimes they are just self-serving justification to get what they want in advance. You know, stuff like: I can be honest in whatever situation that comes along, and frankly, I think that’s just code for — I can be really brutally blunt and my opinion could probably, most likely make you upset, but hey, I told you beforehand so you knew what you were getting into. 

Other than these self-prescribing picture of ourselves, we discover ourselves — or rather, the closest we can get to that — by interacting with others. Because we can’t live in absolute solitude for the entirety of our lives, there most definitely are attributes that you can only discover by being with someone else. Just elementary stuff like, the face you make when you get frustrated. Or something more directly related to your inner sense — how you act boldly to everyone you meet, but that’s actually a fabricated response to hide how nervous you are. It’s just something you can’t realize on your own. Our objective reality of ourselves depends on other subjectivity of ourselves, regardless of how disturbing or unsatisfactory they may be. And by coming to term with those, you create a sweet balance of things you know about yourself as a participant and how others know you as an observer. I feel like that is the closest you will ever get to fully knowing yourself, from the rock bottom.

As for me, I have never had much trouble meeting and interacting with people, but I have been commonly told one thing: that I don’t talk about myself much. I have been told this by five different people who have absolutely no similarities in their upbringings, backgrounds, our even their relationships with me, so I guess it’s a unanimous judgment of myself. I didn’t realize it myself for so long either. If I think about it, I have a set boundary for every person I meet. A safety net. A do-not-cross sign. It’s a boundary for the set amount of personal data that I can share with someone. I don’t do it consciously but it just happens. I think this applies to everyone to an extent, but I am told that I have a much higher threshold than everyone else. Sometimes that demarcation can stretch further over time and I’m able to have what I call a DMC (which stands for deep meaningful conversations), but most of the times I end up having perfunctory, shallow exchange that doesn’t involve connection on a personal level.

That’s just one of the things I’ve been told. I have also been told that I frown a lot when I write, that I am a bad liar (this I have known for a while, I just can’t improvise), and that I am pretty transparent when it comes to emotions because they all just show up on my face. I think that’s great — not that the information I have gotten about myself is pleasant in nature — but that I am getting to know more about myself through the eyes of others. Because I thought I knew myself — the quirks, memories, and preferences — but it’s hard to know who I really am with just that. It is going to take years to meet different people and find new, previously unknown details about ourselves. I don’t want to be all corny, but maybe this whole senseless, arbitrary course of life is just a stretched-out process of knowing about ourselves. Maybe we’ll only know who we truly are minutes before we die. Will we have an objective, close-to-truth answer by then? We’ll never know. 

Despite this whole train of thought, the next time someone asks me, so Sophie, who are you? I’ll probably say I don’t know.

 

a small difference between fiction and real-life

Life November 7, 2019

Maybe it is just me, but I feel like a novel — specifically way someone writes and phrases things reflect so much about who they are as a person. It could be the way a writer uses a particular word over and over again. Or the way that he simply limits a visual description to a sentence-long summary. A writer’s way of writing means more than just stylistic means of delivering an idea. It is a peek into his thoughts and preferences. He could insist on overusing the same word in his works because he thinks that the word carries a symbolic meaning and wants to deliver a cause. Or maybe because he just likes that word. He could also reduce his descriptions to a minimum because sometimes the lack of language forces you to imagine beyond the spectrums of the sentence. It sometimes is true, though personally I like it otherwise.

As for myself, I like crafting the protagonist’s thought process very intricately. Like stream-of-consciousness kind of intricacy. Because very often I derive my ideas from my very surroundings and develop my characters based on the details I observe around me. For example, one of the characters of my recent novel enjoys watching volleyball games. I added that detail because my dad used to be in a volleyball team. From what I’ve heard he was very, very good at it. (And it made me happy that he noticed it while reading my novel) I give my characters attributes I happen to notice from reality and sometimes what I write feels so real that it feels as if I live in it. I end up projecting myself onto the character’s self, and speaking through the narrative persona.

You could say that sometimes it is hard to keep a neutral distance from fiction and reality. Especially so if you see and feel things through the things you craft within your writing. I’ve had a very uncanny experience when I was having a meeting with my editor and a poet from the same publisher — she told me that I reminded her of one of the main characters in my novel, and the poet agreed. They said that I had similar vibes. I’ve built my narrative world so closely to my own experiences and thoughts that it turned out to be inseparable to my real self. So maybe it’s true that what you write is like a mirror that exposes who you are as a person.

The only demarcation between a fiction and reality then is just my persona that has the ability to decide which is which. I could probably frame a real anecdote into my so-called novel and call that a fiction. It could be fiction in the end — whoever reads that would think that the anecdote exists to suit the characters’ needs or to drive the narrative forward. It’s ultimately reduced to a narrative tool then. There is an element of omnipotence as a writer that you can wield any sort of information into a story. A story. A fiction. An un-reality. No matter what happens in that novel and how people read and think about it, only I’ll know that wasn’t actually just a story. It lives and breathes. But it wouldn’t matter, would it?

Because sometimes reality is just as fictional, in that it is unimaginable and unrealistic — in whatever sense that may be. Reality can be just as cruel. Even more so because in real life, unlike our novels, don’t often have very satisfactory endings. Or let alone have one to begin with. There is no rising action, conflict, resolution type of conveniency. Sometimes a story just ends there. And it is the character’s responsibility to deal with the unresolved thoughts and feelings that results from the incomplete story. There is no one at fault — the story just can’t continue. It just sucks that way. I think writing is a coping mechanism. The writer’s authority comes in favorable here. We can give unended, dead ends a nice clean closure, even that may not be absolutely true. But if everyone believes it, I guess it can come true.

내 사진의 초점

Korean February 6, 2019

문득 작가 프로필 사진을 고르기 위해서 갤러리를 훑는 도중 느낀 게 있다면, 어떤 사진은 내 모습이 잘 나와도 그닥 마음에 들지 않는 것들이 있고, 잘 나오지 않았는데 퍽 마음에 드는 것들이 있다. 사실 이것을 오늘 처음 와닿은 건 아닌 게 11학년 때 당시 절친이 찍어준 사진을 지우지 못하고 사진첩에 남겨둘 때부터 어렴풋이 느끼고 있었던 것 같다. 그날은 학교 바자회 같은 행사였어서 하루종일 동아리 부스에서 아이스크림을 팔았는데, 몇 시간이 지나고 보니 몰골이 그렇게 엉망진창일 수가 없었다. 머리는 산발이고 화장은 거의 지워지고… 여하튼 최상의 상태는 아니었다. 그런 엉망인 상태로 학교 육상부 트랙에서 노을을 등지고 찍은 사진이었는데, 사진첩을 정리할 때 그 사진을 계속 지울 수가 없었다. 몇 번이고 돌아가 봐도, 그 사진은 남겨두었다. 꽤나 못 나온 사진인데도 난 잊을만하면 계속 그 사진으로 돌아가 그때의 시간을 계속 곱씹곤 했다. 몇 번이고, 또 몇 번이고.

결국 사진의 퀄리티와 선호도는 비례하지 않는다는 것이다. 어떻게 보면은 너무나 당연한 사실을 어렵사리 깨달았다. 그렇게 느낀 사진은 단 둘이다. 나머지 하나는 고등학교 때 서울에서 류이치 사카모토의 전시회를 보러갔을 때 전시장 앞에서 엄마가 찍어준 사진이다. 그날이 왜 그렇게 기억에 남았는지는 지금도 잘 생각이 나질 않는다. 다만 그때 그 동네 특유의 풀냄새가 좋아서, 7월 중순의 햇볕이 좋아서였는지도 몰랐다. 숨이 타들어가는 와중에 보이는 풀꽃이 좋아서, 그늘 아래 한 숨 돌리는 게 좋아서. 전시장에는 유독 기억에 남는 작품이 있었는데, 그건 천장의 수조 아래 누워서 물의 무늬를 그대로 관찰하는 것이었다. 눈을 감고 소리를 듣는 사람도 있었고 그대로 물을 바라보는 사람도 있었다. 난 어쩐지 손을 뻗어서 물을 만져보고 싶었다. 이대로 가라앉아 눈을 감아도 마냥 좋을 것 같았기 때문이었다. 그날 하루는 그렇게 기억에 무겁게 남았다. 이후에 모르는 동네의 언덕을 걷고 생소한 책방을 발견하게 되는 그 하루가 일상에 물결을 일었던 것이다. 기억이 찾아드는 날은 예기치 않게 찾아온다고 그때 생각했다.

어떨 때는 기억에 남기고 싶어도 당최 남겨지질 않았다. 사진이란 당시의 순간을 시각적으로 기록하는 것인데, 사진을 몇 장이고 찍어도 그날의 기억은 그리 인상적이지 않은 것이다. 내가 그날을 기억하고 싶어도 단순히 사진을 찍은 그 순간만 기억하고 그날의 전체적인 인상과 느낌은 잘 생각나지 않는다. 기억을 하고 싶어서 기록을 남긴 것이 오히려 그 순간만 잔뜩 부각시켜버린 것이다. 어쩌면 중요했을지도 다른 모르는 요소들은 잠식시킨 채. 난 사진을 많이 찍는 편이고 또 찍는 것을 좋아하기 때문에 내 사진첩에는 언제나 사진이 많다. 기억하는 순간들은 많은데, 마음에 남는 순간은 손에 꼽힌다. 요컨대, 기억하고 싶은 것과 기억에 남는 건 많이 다르다는 것이다. 난 어릴 적 엄마가 만든 케이크가 어떻게 생겼는지, 맛은 어땠는지 기억하고 싶어하지만 문득 생각나는 건 케이크를 만드는 엄마의 모습이었으니까.

사진 한 장 없어도 계속 기억에 남는 것들도 있다. 나는 유독 기억에 대한 이야기를 많이 쓴다. 봄날의 로즈에서도 로즈와 쥬드는 기억을 가지고 내기를 했고 내 온 마음을 담아서에서는 기억을 잊고 싶은 남자와 기억하고 싶어하는 여자의 정서적 교류에 대한 것이니까. 나는 그렇게 계속 머무는 기억에 대해 쓰고 싶었다. 사진 하나 없어도 기억에 영화마냥 재생될 그런 빛바래지 않는 기억 말이다. 나한테는 어떠한 기억이 중요했고 그 기억을 지키려면 어떤 것도 할 수 있었으니까, 가 내 얼마 전까지의 신념이었다. 하지만 며칠 전에는 눈이 많이 왔다. 눈이 그렇게 많이 오는 건 정말 오랜만이라서, 사진에 담고 싶었는데 생각하는 것처럼 잘 나오지 않았다. 그래서 그냥 그만두었다. 어차피 머물 기억이라면 굳이 사진으로 남기지 않아도 남을 것이다. 그리고 이제는 굳이 못 잊을 것도 없을 것 같았다. 시간이 너무 오래 지나서, 그 기억에게 묻고 싶은 것도, 궁금한 것도 없었다. 그래서 난 그날 사진을 남겨두지 않아서 내심 안도했다. 기록의 부재에 기꺼이, 몇 번이고 마음을 놓았다.

First Try at Lomo

photography October 25, 2018

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Hyde Park, London 2018


I write to express my feelings: the bed-side thoughts that keep me up on quaint nights, or troubles that cloud my head every passing hour. Or things that I want to remember: the nice cosy cafe by Russell Square station I’ve walked past one early evening or that one night I’ve strolled across the empty park under the biggest full moon ever. When I write stuff like these I try to write them with an immense amount of detail, because to me writing is a way to keep track of things. A way of not forgetting things. I am not going to lie about this pastime of mine by prefacing all my writing with a notion that I derive happiness from simply the act of creating or imagining something. To be ultimately frank I write to remember. Hence my ability to write or lack thereof springs from my desire to keep things intact in my memory. Like a paraphernalia for old and lost moments in my life I often forget about. For some time though, writing was insufficient in capturing everything I want to keep in my memories. Sure, I could describe indefinitely about how I was entranced by the reflection of the moon rippling across the lake or that one stranger I came across who had the oddest-looking boots; but sometimes there were limitations to which I can describe about things I can distinctly recall. So I was looking for other platforms of expression, and somehow I stumbled into lomo cameras.

I have mentioned multiple times on my blog that I am a very analog-obsessed person; I like everything from crumbling old love letters — even if they aren’t addressed to me — to rusty gold-rimmed clocks. I could say that simply the traces of age the items harbor make them different from the modern times, where everything is swift and easy. We can access everything nowadays with a click, press, and a swipe. Nothing was easy back then. Everything had to be thought of countless times before the backlit feeling of the heart could be expressed. It is harder, but hence more thoughtful. The years of hand-held evidence feels different; it just seems more heartfelt and dear. Lomo cameras — analog cameras, so called — use rolls of film to process photographs. And to process film, you would usually have to wait an average of three days. It seems like an agonizing wait for a set of thirty-six photos, but the beauty of time makes up for it. Just imagine taking pictures of the things that you love and thinking and recalling about them for three nights before facing them once again. It is slow, but it feels more precious that way. You learn to appreciate the act of remembering.

In contrary to my previously explained love for lomography however, my first roll turned out to be a disaster. I did not know (although I should have known) that you weren’t supposed to open the back of the camera with the film still rolling — or however professionally you’d phrase that — and exposed my film too early. I ended up losing one-third of my photos. It was a shame, but to be fair the rest of the photos that I’ve managed to salvage were not as exceptional either. I’m satisfied with the few photos, considering that this had been my trial shots. The three photos I have uploaded are my favorite shots (actually the only decent ones in the entire roll), all taken from Hyde Park. I have been to every corner in Fitzrovia street to Hyde Park, but those three were my most memorable ones. The soft-spoken conversation that the couple sitting on the bench was having, the genuine looks they were exchanging — there is an element of intimacy in that moment. It is a feeling that I can never describe fully in words.

One good thing about analog camera is that there is rarely a need to edit them. I usually edit and fix my photos here and there when I use my digital camera — sometimes so drastically that I’d only need a quarter of what I have actually taken. I’d have to edit the brightness or contrast to fully bring out the colors and feelings I was looking with when I was taking the photos. Films capture the moment itself. Its lens has a layer of antiquity marked by a bona fide feeling of sincerity. And that is something I hope to acquire when I look back on my memories — an unfeigned honesty with a hint of wholeheartedness — not with a perfunctory, prompt acknowledgment of past events.

The Art of Writing a Letter about Thinking of You

Life September 28, 2018

I write a lot of letters. On sleepless nights like these, I like to listen to one of my oddly named Spotify playlists and scribble whatever comes up to my mind with my very messy, occasionally – actually most of the times – illegible penmanship. Maybe it’s because that I have this peculiar obsession over the analog era. Old rusty clocks with gold rims that don’t tick anymore or binoculars you use on your night escapades to watch constellations. Besides the point, I just like the idea of completely immersing yourself into the thought of someone while you’re writing about them. The whole moment is surrounded by that one idea of the person. The way you hold your pen, or write your ‘g’s, the words you choose – they are all dominated by the thought of it. It’s more genuine, because the recipient of the letter can actually read the heart and time in between the lines.

I feel like it’s a more effective way to deliver a thought to someone you care, more than a text or an email. But that’s just me. There are probably faster, more effective ways to tell someone you care. It also does not help that I am analog-obsessed. So as much as I love receiving a letter, I love writing them. When I have someone I just can’t get off my mind I start writing. I write about everything. About my day — the one good halloumi wrap I ate that morning, the homeless guy sleeping I saw on my way to the park, this old record shop selling a bunch of ABBA records that I probably should not get, or hours spent trying to tell apart the stars at night. And sometimes I write about writing about them. About how much I think of them. I write about thinking of writing about them. I rarely send them though, because sometimes they are so transparent and honest that I would feel too exposed and bare just by the thought of them being read. Most of my letters are disposed before they are sent.

That’s probably the reason I grew up to be a coward. The more letters I write, the more I hide when I actually have to say something. It wouldn’t matter to me because I would just say those in the letters. The letters I will never send. The letters that will never be read. The words he will never know. I have many regrets about things I hadn’t had the chance to say. I write them all down, well-knowing they will never get delivered, and try to send the thoughts away by disposing the letter in the morning. Will I have more regrets about unspoken thoughts and hearts? Probably. So I write this as an extension to my unresolved letters. Who knows, this might be a letter in disguise too.