the dispatch #1
It’s that time of year when spring isn’t quite here yet, but the first signs are just beginning to appear that a change of seasons is waiting around the corner—the days are getting ever-so-slightly longer, the yellow heads of daffodils in Russell Square are starting to poke up through the earth, and as I was walking along Marchmont Street the other day, I passed a tree that was already covered in small pink blossoms.
It’s hard to believe that it’s already been more than four months since I moved to London. It still doesn’t always feel entirely real, but every so often I will find myself struck yet again by the sudden awareness that this really is my life; that I do, in fact, live in an entirely new country, an ocean away from the existence to which I had grown so accustomed. These flashes of realization tend to strike me when I’m least expecting them, typically when I’m in the midst of some mundane activity—riding the Tube, for example, or standing in the produce aisle at M&S. They are familiar to me by now, but that familiarity does little to reduce the intensity of the feeling that these moments still evoke—a strange, thrilling combination of exhilaration, apprehension, and disbelief. I wouldn’t be surprised if that feeling doesn’t ever really go away.
Now that I’ve been here for several months, it’s been interesting to measure my actual experience of living abroad against what I expected—particularly in terms of the more negative aspects. I’d like to think that I had a pretty clear-eyed understanding going in, and resisted the urge to over-romanticize or create unrealistic expectations for myself. At the same time, it’s become clear that I certainly underestimated—perhaps naïvely—the loneliness that I would feel in a new country. I think that because I had already been living alone for the past year and a half, and in all honesty really enjoyed that experience, I fell into a false sense of complacency and simply figured that living alone in London would be no different.
Of course, that belief proved to be entirely unfounded—there is, in fact, a world of difference between living alone in a city you’ve known like the back of your hand for years, with the majority of your friends and loved ones just a short walk or bus ride away, and living alone in a much larger, much less familiar place, where the people you love most are on the other side of an ocean and even the friends you do manage to make are scattered across the sprawling city. To the extent that I did predict any feelings of loneliness, I think some part of me thought that I would simply adapt and become more comfortable being alone with my thoughts, when in reality I’ve taken to filling the silences, of which there are many, with music and podcasts.
None of this is to say that I’m unhappy here. I’ve met and befriended truly incredible people from all over the world, been exposed through my studies to ideas that have challenged my thinking in ways that I never thought possible, and experienced the manifold joys that come with spending part of one’s early twenties in a city that feels, in many ways, like the center of the universe. The idea to apply to graduate school in London first came to me in April 2020, when the realization was just starting to set in that the COVID pandemic was going to seriously disrupt my plans—including that of studying abroad during my undergrad—for the next year or two. Getting my master’s abroad seemed to be the perfect solution—not only would I get the experience of moving to another country, like my parents and grandparents did, but I’d also get another degree out of the bargain. Fast forward two years and ten months later, and here I am.
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what i’m reading
The other day, while scrolling on Twitter, I came across this beautiful essay by Ken Chen in n+1, titled “Corky Lee and the Work of Seeing.” The piece is a tribute to the Chinese American photographer and activist Corky Lee, who passed away from COVID in January 2021, and whose photographs captured the lives and political struggles of Asian American communities. I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with Lee before reading this essay, but I was nevertheless struck by the intimate and extremely compelling picture Chen paints of Lee’s life and work, which he interweaves with poignant reflections on capitalism, structural violence, and the #StopAsianHate movement. The whole essay is beautifully written, but I was particularly enchanted by the penultimate paragraph:
So much of our vocabulary of representation comes premised on visuality (“I feel seen”), but I never saw myself in Lee’s photographs and that is why his work felt so crucial. “Identity” suggests something private and individual—and when looking at who Lee photographed, I was struck by how no one alive could literally see themselves in every portrait. They showcase the difference at the heart of “Asian America.” Today, people often remark that Asian Americans don’t have anything in common, that nothing really unites us. What they are really wondering is why they don’t feel the magic of their own self-essentialism. The Sikh flag-bearer, Miss Saigon protester, and Chinese seamstress do not resemble each other, but Lee honored them into a portraiture that implied some larger commonality, a coalition that need not be constricted by nationalism. We live in a moment of Asian American fear, but looking at Lee’s photos, I thought about the tremendous courage it would take to proffer yourself to a country that pictures you as its adversary. I considered the bravery required to rebut a cop, push back against your boss or transplant yourself from your home into some dismal American sweatshop. Unlike identifying with someone just like you, solidarity suggests “you” constitutes something suppler than the cell of yourself.
The idea expressed here, of building immigrant identity through “a coalition that need not be constricted by nationalism,” is one that I identify with very strongly. It’s an ethos that I try as best I can to express in my writing, through pieces such as my essay “reimagined communities” from last June.
In terms of books, I recently finished Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin, which is the second Nabokov I’ve read this year (the first was Despair). My takeaway from both of these books is that Nabokov’s prose is, in my opinion, every bit as gorgeous as it is said to be, but that the story was a bit underwhelming for my taste—in both cases, it took me about half of the book to actually become at all invested in what the words on the page were saying, rather than just the beauty of the words themselves. Perhaps I’ll feel differently when I eventually get around to reading Lolita, which I still have yet to do.
After finishing Pnin, I started reading Annie Ernaux’s The Years, which I am absolutely loving. I finished it this morning, and all I can say is: holy shit. I honestly don’t have the words to adequately express just how stunned I am by both the lyricism of Ernaux’s prose and her ability to take tiny fragments of life and culture and delicately weave them together to form a cohesive, compelling picture of the world around her over the span of several decades. Some aspects of the style and voice, particularly in the early parts of the book, remind me a bit of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (interestingly, in 2020 Ferrante named The Years among her 40 favorite books by female authors). Despite loving literature, I’ve never followed the major literary prizes too closely, and this is the first time I’ve chosen a book specifically because its author won the most recent Nobel. I have not been disappointed.
what i’m listening to
I know I’m terribly late to the game on this, but I recently listened to the entirety of Once Upon a Time at Bennington College, a really great podcast about the college days of literary stars Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, and Jonathan Lethem, who all attended Vermont’s Bennington College together in the 1980s. It’s based on this 2019 Esquire feature by Lili Anolik, who also hosted the podcast. To be honest, I don’t particularly care about Bret Easton Ellis or Jonathan Lethem, but Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is one of my favorite novels of all time, and it was so fascinating to learn about the extent to which the setting and characters of that book was copied almost directly from her experience at Bennington.
In terms of music, I’ve honestly been in a bit of a rut as of late—partly because I’ve really been enjoying podcasts (no doubt due in large part to the aforementioned loneliness; having a podcast on is like having friends talking in the background), and partly because when I do listen to music, I tend to fall back on old favorites rather than branching out and discovering something new. Some highlights from my “winter/spring ‘23” playlist include:
Valerie (Live at BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge) – Amy Winehouse
Oogum Boogum Song – Brenton Wood
Die/Cry – Indigo De Souza
Tezeta (Nostalgia) – Mulatu Astatke
Please sound off in the comments with any and all recommendations—books, music, podcasts, films, whatever! I’m always on the hunt for new Content™.
This post is getting a bit long, so I’ll wrap things up now. Hopefully it was at least somewhat interesting—like I said in my “introducing the dispatch” post, I don’t really have a set vision for what this series will look like, so I’m absolutely open to suggestions and feedback!
Until next time,
I will forever be indebted to whichever beautiful soul on TikTok introduced me to the brilliance that is Ethiopian jazz. This song makes me feel emotions that no other song makes me feel.