Monday, December 11, 2017

all of you is inherited

I miss reading/sleeping at Morrison Library between classes
My mum likes to tell this story of how when I was less than a year old and we were living in Wyoming, my favorite thing to do was pull out books from the bottom shelves at bookstores and libraries when she set me down to look for books for her psych class. I didn't learn how to read for another few years, but once I did I never stopped. My childhood and early adolescence was filled with weekend afternoons spent at Borders or Barnes & Noble reading a book or two in one sitting and copying down titles for a dozen more to put on hold at the local public library; I had my 16-digit library card number memorized by the time I was six, and when my parents tried to limit my reading time during the day in favor of practicing piano or doing Chinese homework in my elementary and middle school years, I would alternate between staying up and hiding in my walk-in closet to read at night or getting up at dawn to read beneath the giant skylight before school.

I don't think you can be much of a writer if you're not also a voracious reader. If I was going to take a break from writing the least I could do was read more; by the end of 2015, I started actively using my Goodreads account to track my progress and set a goal of reading 50 books in 2016. Even though I fell spectacularly short, I tried again in 2017, and I'm happy to say that as of two weeks ago I surpassed my goal and will be upping the ante to 60 books in 2018.

Here's a list of some of my favorite books I read this year:

1. OVERALL FAVORITE: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
"Bang bang was the sound of memory's pistol firing into our heads, for we could not forget love, we could not forget war, we could not forget lovers, we could not forget enemies, we could not forget home, and we could not forget Saigon."
Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut and Pulitzer Prize winning novel is absolutely brilliant, and this is one of those rare books that I would recommend to just about anybody. This novel is a war story, a spy story, a commentary of America and the American Dream, a contemplation on moral philosophy or the origins of theories on political economy (because theory is where practice fails: we say we want to save the world but in the end we really desperately want to save ourselves), a revelation on what it means to belong to places and people, and an exploration of love, identity, loyalty, and deception.

The prose is beautifully written—rich without being decadent—even though I had to pause and resume again sometimes because this isn't the kind of book you can devour in one sitting. I think my only qualm is that this book makes me wish I knew more about the world going into the one Nguyen creates: I lost track of the allusions I felt like I should have known (as a student of American foreign policy and political theory at Berkeley, as someone whose best friend wrote her college honors thesis on the Vietnamese immigrant experience and legacy), but that said, I'm in awe by how many hard and important questions this novel is able to comment on.

2. MOST THOUGHT-PROVOKING: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

I couldn't think of a non-profane way of expressing this, so let me just get this out there: Invisible Monsters is the most f*cked up book I've ever read (so far) and I love it. This writing is bold, the characters are provocative, and the plot structure is non-linear; it's presented in a way that makes you feel like you were told to trace a line connecting incongruous points to reveal a linear plot after all, only to look down and see you were drawing circles the whole time.

I have a particular fondness for stories about people who have everything before losing it all and Invisible Monsters is no exception: the unnamed narrator was a model with an enviable career, boyfriend, and best friend before getting her face blown off in a freak highway accident. This book is about what it means to be beautiful and to be seen when you're a material girl in a material world until one day you wake up and suddenly you're not anymore; to love and be loved and more importantly to belong in romantic, familial, and platonic relationships and why we hold on to people when they hurt and betray us; to take control over your own identity and subsequently your life and to live it on your terms and not anyone else's.
"I'm only doing this because it's the biggest mistake I can think to make. It's stupid and destructive, and anybody you ask will tell you I'm wrong. That's why I have to go through with it...we're so trained to do life the right way. To not make mistakes. I figure, the bigger the mistake looks, the better chance I'll have to break out and live a real life."
This book shocked me, made me laugh, and took me on one hell of a ride I can't wait to get back on again. I dare you to read it. If you do, let me know: I've been dying to talk about it with someone since finishing it in March and I'm looking for an excuse to reread this again sometime.

3. MOST PERSPECTIVE-CHANGING: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi's memoir about the secret lessons on forbidden Western literature she gave to seven of her most committed female students in the Islamic Republic of Iran is a breathtaking love letter to literature itself. This was one of five books my favorite high school English teacher recommended when I got in touch last month, and reading this reminded me of being back in his classroom five years ago and studying so many great works for the first time and was just starting to piece together why we read fiction at all.

My mum and I have very different ideas about what books we should be reading and why; she reads almost exclusively nonfiction to learn about anything and everything she's wanted to know, from personal finance to wine to studying Romance languages, while I read almost exclusively fiction to be fascinated and escape the mundanity of my own life for a glimpse at another world. My mum and I also come from very different worlds: she grew up to the extreme censorship of the Cultural Revolution era in China, while I had the privilege of growing up with limitless access to any story I wanted to engage with in the suburbs of Seattle. For her, literature was a luxury she rarely afforded; for me, literature has been a passion I've hungered for for as long as I could remember.
"A novel is not an allegory. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing."
Nafisi's memoir is inadvertently a story about what a privilege it is to be able to engage with and understand great works by Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Austen, and other greats of the Western canon, especially if you live(d) in a world that will go to extreme measures to stifle the questions and perspectives these works offer up, like Iran in the mid-1990s or China in the mid-1970s. When I was telling my mum about the nonfiction books I read this year, I realized I would have a hard time selling this one to her because it requires familiarity with Lolita or The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice to appreciate the relevance of Nafisi's commentary, and that maybe my affection for this book comes from a love of literature I've taken for granted.

Half a year after graduation and I'm again left with questions (but not answers) about education, what it means to continue to learn and grow, and how to empathize not just through reading and but also through engaging with people from dramatically different perspectives and experiences in life.

4. MOST HEARTBREAKING: Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
"We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only."
Everything about Call Me By Your Name is beautiful in the way Abraham Van Beyeren's banquet still life paintings are: decadent, vibrant, sensual, ephemeral. This love story between Elio, a seventeen year old boy, and Oliver, his father's graduate student, set to the backdrop of a cliff-side mansion on the Italian Riviera is achingly picturesque, and I'm not sure if it's the intimate stream-of-consciousness writing style perfumed with obsession or its haunting and deeply unsatisfying answers to questions of love and happily ever afters that get to me more.

Aciman's attention to detail builds tension in a painstaking and breathless pace: from the very beginning, this novel makes you aware of the passage of time, every click of a ticking clock and every soft breeze sighing through peach tree leaves in the still heat of summer on the Italian seaside. The eroticism in this novel isn't so much in the acts themselves but the extent to which Elio and Oliver must lay themselves bare to each other in order for the spark of intimacy to truly ignite.

This book devastated me because it asks: how do you deal with knowing you risk your heart breaking when summer ends and this space between us can no longer exist or be recreated like this ever again? How do you rationalize that the pain will be worth the remaining time we have left? Call Me By Your Name reminded me that you have to say yes anyway, even when you risk breaking your heart, because it's those moments of sheer bliss that are ultimately our raison d'être.

5. MOST HEARTWARMING: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

I have big, complicated feelings about Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart, a collection of stories about six Chinese American daughters of immigrants growing up in New York in the 1990s. I've been following Jenny's writing since her Rookie Mag days six years ago, and Sour Heart is the only book I actually bought for myself this year. Her writing is sharp in that tangy, juicy, flavorful way akin to sinking your teeth into a firm green grape, and although her stories are at times vulgar and downright disturbing, they are also remarkably poignant and genuine and real.
"How did we end up with such a sour girl? How did we get so lucky? they'd say, clearing away the frantic voices of who I thought I was supposed to be, and though I knew it wouldn't last forever, I stayed between them until I remembered who I was again and no longer felt lonely."
It wasn't until I got to the final story "You Fell into the River and I Saved You!" that I started feeling like I was reading a story about my life. Or more accurately: here is the story of my life that I never thought that people would ever care about, the small, awkward, intimate experiences of growing up in an immigrant family and the diasporic community built on family friends and relatives few and far between, finally validated by a writer, a publisher, and booksellers who decided that these stories are important enough to leave their imprint on the world.

I think the crux of how I feel reading Sour Heart is a sense of relief that every story, but especially my story—the life I've lived so far—is worth telling. As a teenager I was so terrified I wasn't living enough for a life worthy of being storied. Now I'm starting to understand that it doesn't make me a better (or worse, or less worthy) person that my past was exactly what it was, even if sometimes it feels boring or small or unremarkable: it simply makes me me, and if I'm going to use my voice I have to also embrace who I am and not discount my own experiences.

Sour Heart is a book on my forever shelf, the one I wish I had six years ago when I first announced that I am a writer, the one that gave me hope and strength to be a writer of my own stories, and the one that inspires me to write with empathy and honesty. Stories matter because people matter, and I will never forget that quiet moment of validation I felt by my own possible significance in this world as I did in that waiting room in Virginia when I finished this collection of stories for the first time in September.

xoxo, vivian

PS: Leave me a comment with a book (or two, or three, or ten) you love and why. I'll add it to my 2018 list and send you a message when I get to it so we can talk then.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

the streets were paved with gold









BARCELONA, SPAIN
  • It was 3am by the time I got to my hostel after three flights and two days on the road. I didn't sleep at all that night, too excited and restless to finally begin the month-long trip I planned with my best friend with three weeks notice. This was something we'd talked about doing for years and years until one day at the end of May we finally booked one-way flights to Barcelona and turned dreams into reality.
  • The 1€ guanabana juice from La Boqueria was absolutely delicious. 
  • I love art museums, and I spent the morning of my first solo day wandering Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona after a morning cappuccino and before the sleepless night/jet lag finally hit around 2pm. Memorable exhibits that reflect politics as art: Krzysztof Wodiczko's If You See Something and Adrian Melis' Surplus Production Line.
  • If you're thinking about getting the churros con chocolate at the top of Mount Tibidabo: don't. They taste like stale sadness and regret. In fact, they were so laughably bad, other tourists saw Yvana and I cracking up at the limp pieces covered in chocolate syrup and said "are those churros? We should get some too!" and mistakenly thought it was because we enjoyed them and it haunts me to this day that they actually got them too. Now I'm telling you to just trust me on this one: don't do it. 
  • Park Güell started charging an entrance fee for the Monumental Zone (the central part of the park with the famous mosaics and terraces) and tickets were all sold out by the time we got there, but you can and should still wander the rest of the park. 
  • The Nit de Sant Joan is fun...if you're with a group of friends. Go to the beach with speakers, firecrackers, drinks (especially cava), and a plan to stay out all night. Public transportation is limited so if you plan on tucking in before dawn, be prepared to walk the streets and maybe pop into a convenience store for a bottle of Fanta límon on your way home. 
  • The day after the Nit de Sant Joan is a holiday. Most places are either closed or have special holiday hours. We didn't know this and spent a lot of that Saturday wandering between places that closed early before finally ending up at a speakeasy
  • La Sagrada Familia is so so so worth it. Please go. Please book tickets online in advance. You really need to be there to witness the magic of sunlight streaming through Gaudi's basilica in person.
  • On day four, my phone blacked out and wouldn't turn back on approximately 15 minutes after my film camera spontaneously rewound itself on a day I didn't have any other rolls of film on hand. For someone who talks a lot about wanting proof of things' existence, I was really upset at the prospect of not being able to take photos for the rest of the trip. Even though I figured out how to hard restart my phone and remembered to always carry spare film in the days to come, I think I needed the reminder to be flexible when things don't always go my way.







MADRID, SPAIN
  • Spanish summers are for staying out all night, every night. We flew from Barcelona to Madrid and got to town in the middle of the afternoon siesta, and after eating two dinners (one early dinner at a stylish Mexican restaurant next door to our hostel, and one late dinner for tapas at a Michelin star restaurant on the other side of town) met up with Judy and her friends at the club after midnight. 
  • There's something universal about stepping into a dark room where the floors are sticky with spilt vodka sodas and strangers ask you to dance to the latest pop songs blaring from speakers at the front of the room; there's something beautiful about finding solace in a group of girls who stick together through the night even though you only just met.
  • Ready for some really good churros con chocolate? Head to Chocolatería San Ginés; we went twice in two days. 
  • El Parque del Retiro was beautiful, not that my photos seem to reflect that because the lens wasn't focusing. Visit either before or after wandering the Prado, home to one of the finest collections of European art.
  • Separation of church and state? What's that like? The Almudena Catedral is right next to el Palacio Real, so plan on seeing both while you're in the neighborhood. I couldn't help but think about how the staggering wealth of gold and art and finery represented within the palace walls goes hand in hand with the legacy of Spanish colonialism, but oh, how resplendent it all was.
  • We met Charlotte at our hostel in the morning and made plans to meet up later that night. We went to El Tigre for the free tapas and 6 mojitos in glasses the size of my face, another dinner after that for paella (Yvana and I are very serious about eating), and stayed up until 4am laughing at memes, eating awful convenience store gelato, playing pool, and doing laundry. 
  • My favorite part about traveling are nights like this, really: anyone can tell you to go somewhere and see a thing and expect it to be magnificent, but it's the memories you make in unexpectedly ordinary circumstances that remind you that you can make happy memories doing anything when you're with best friends and new friends alike. 





SEVILLE, SPAIN
  • We stayed at an Airbnb in Sevilla and our host recommended Otaola for some amazing paella. It's a popular spot among locals but the waiters don't speak English; pick your favorite and order a glass or two of tinto verano con límon while you're at it.
  • There's a Polaroid of Yvana and I on the wall of fame at the Long Island Bar. It should really just be her up for completing the Route 66 challenge since I only contributed moral support/videography duty. 
  • If you only have a day in Sevilla like we did, go to el Parque de Maria Luisa and wander the Plaza de España.
  • El Catedral de Sevilla is the largest cathedral in the world and the third-largest church in the world. Go see the 42m tall altarpiece, stunning gothic architecture, priceless relics, and of course the Giralda, the bell tower that was originally built in the Moorish period. Get gelato (mango was my favorite) at La Abuela right outside the cathedral for a late afternoon snack. Maybe even get it twice like we did.
  • We unfortunately didn't have time to go to the Alcazar but I heard it's beautiful. If you go, let me know how it is! 
  • I bought my first postcards of the trip in Sevilla and posted on Instagram that I would write postcards from my trip to any of my friends who sent me their address; I sent a dozen of them by the time Yvana and I parted ways in Munich and even received two from friends traveling in other parts of the world, and I like the idea of scattering mementos from my trip across continents and letting people know I thought of them from the other side of the globe. 







MARREKECH, MOROCCO
  • For the second leg of our trip, Yvana and I did a 5 day bus tour of Morocco that started and ended in southern Spain. We decided to do a bus tour because (1) we were two young female travelers and felt safer being in a group, (2) we wanted to see multiple cities, and (3) we were on a budget. If you're thinking about visiting Morocco, be sure to research the culture and read about or talk to other travelers for their experiences; traveling to Morocco was a very different experience for me than anywhere I've been in Europe or East Asia, and even though we didn't get to see or do as much through doing a tour (vs. organizing a trip on our own), it was the best option for us based on our concerns for safety and our time and budget constraints.
  • Because we booked a tour with a large group, the itinerary was set so we didn't have much flexibility to do things on our own. On our first night in Casablanca, we asked our guide how he recommended we go out at night after checking into our hotel and he told us "you don't." It was a change of pace from traveling in Spain, but at least we got enough sleep each night.
  • Hot Moroccan mint tea is good even on 100˚F days. Take it with or without sugar. We were offered it at some of the shops during our souk (marketplace) tours and they serve it at all the roadside cafes.
  • Marrekech was my favorite city we visited in Morocco. It's sometimes called the "Red City" because a lot of the buildings are built with red sandstone which gives them the famed ochre color that's made even more beautiful beneath the hot desert sun.
  • My favorite site was Palais Bahia, a palace built in the late 19th century by the Grand Vizier for his wives, concubines, and children. 
  • We also wandered the Jemaa el-Fnaa square and had fresh squeezed juice while watching street performances before heading off to dinner.
  • I don't really like eating lamb in general, but the lamb tajine I had in Morocco was amazing.







FES, MOROCCO
  • "You're not going to write about the fascinating and fast-paced, heart-thumping adventure that was Rabat?" - Yvana, when I told her I only included Marrekech and Fes in this post. Although our tour destinations technically included Meknes and Rabat, they were given the "panoramic tour" treatment which in bus tour-speak is a drive through the city where the tour guide tells you to look to your left (of course only when you happen to be sitting on the right side of the bus) to catch a glimpse at something noteworthy without actually getting off to see it in person. 
  • We did however spend a full day in Fes, the former capital and second-most populated city in Morocco. In the morning we took a guided tour through the Jewish quarter and the Fes el Bali medina. Fes is famous for being a hub for artisans, and even though I didn't buy anything, I loved wandering through the souk to look at all the bronze mirrors and leather goods made by artisans who have been mastering their craft for generations.
  • I'm pretty sure we would've gotten lost here if we didn't have a guide. We never walked through the same alleyway twice.
  • Even though we were sufficiently warned about the harassment and heckling a lot of single, foreign women experience at the hands of the local men in Morocco, it still takes an emotional toll to experience it firsthand. We were taken to a modern downtown shopping area in the afternoon and even though we only walked a couple of blocks, I've never been more acutely aware of all the eyes leering at me. As much as I loved Morocco for its culture and food and history, you need a thick skin if you visit as a young solo female traveler. 
  • In spite of the fact that our tour was very much a "you get what you pay for" experience, I had an amazing time because I was traveling with my best friend. The bad became laughably bad and the good became memories that would last a lifetime, and I can't imagine having done this trip with anyone else.

Part II (Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, and Dublin) coming soon. 

xoxo, vivian

Photos shot on Fujifilm Superia 400, Kodak Portra 400, and iPhone 5s

Sunday, November 19, 2017

roll out your maps and papers

























For 2017, my New Year's resolution was to "live a life worth photographing." I came up with it as a spinoff to the line from "You Should Date An Illiterate Girl" (a problematic essay, I know) that goes: "You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied." I wanted to capture every moment this year that mattered to me, and less than a week into the new year I realized how impossible that was. I felt like I shattered the perfect candidness each time I took out my phone or camera and asked Alice if she could take a picture of me, and when I came back from Taiwan in January and picked up my film scans from Photolab, I felt like I couldn't post a photo diary here of that trip because I didn't get the story I wanted to tell just right.

It took me until now to decide that maybe that's okay.

Here are some of my favorite shots from the first quarter of the year, mostly film photos from January to March. Pictured are Kaohsiung, Shifen, Jiufen, Taipei, San Francisco, Tempe, Tokyo, and Kyoto; not pictured are Hualien, Berkeley, Oakland, Phoenix, and Osaka. Coming soon: photos from Europe this summer. It's been a wild and colorful year, and I think I'm finally ready to share more of it here.

Stay tuned.

xoxo, vivian

Film photos shot on Fujifilm Superia 400, Kodak Gold 200, and Kodak Portra 400; others on iPhone 5s