Welcome to the first issue of what I hope will be a regular newsletter! (The photo above is my cat Deke in the process of helping this morning as I type this.) The idea is to share work in progress, motivate a regular writing practice, and let y’all know what I’m thinking about so that you can get in touch if you’re interested while the work is actually coming into being (rather than waiting for a publication). This will be clumsy at first: we’ll try some things, we’ll see what works, and we’ll gradually figure it out. Below, you’ll find some thoughts on what I’m reading and writing this week. I’m keeping this short and very casual. It’s meant to be open, so please do feel free to reach out, now and always, if you’d like to be in conversation. Let’s see where this takes us, and happy reading!
I’m reading some things.
This week, I’ve been reading in a bunch of book that are, in some way, concerned with forms of spacetime. There are ways of being in a space, here. Ways of relating to a space. Outer space. Other worlds accessed through a wormhole from a dark universe version of Ikea. Plant space, and epiphytic ways of being in a space. Humanist space. Punctuated space. River space. Family space. Classroom space. What it is to be (to become) indigenous as a way of coming into relation with a space. What is it to be somewhere. How complex and fraught and unclear a process it can be, to be somewhere. How we need to learn to do that, some of us. (I know how to go somewhere. I’m still learning how to be somewhere.)
- Nino Cipri, Finna and Defekt
- Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland
- Josh Berson, The Human Scaffold
- Fiona Banner, Period
- Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Walta, Sentient
- Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem
- Susan D. Blum (ed.), Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (And What to Do Instead)
- Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults
- Eric Hayot, Humanist Reason
I’m sending dispatches from The Elizabeths.
Some years ago, I began a short fiction project that was also a way to think about the physicality of historical writing, and about how we weave stories from fragments. I took a break from it for a while as I tried to figure out what kind of book it wanted to be, and I’ve turned back to it this summer after (mostly) figuring that out. I’ll share dispatches from the project as I write. This week, I’ve been thinking about decomposition as a form of composition. Here’s a bit of that thinking in progress.
Sometimes, making something involves unmaking something else. (An object, ideas about yourself, a set of sheets, your plans.) And different forms of unmaking allow different kinds of things to be made. You can deconstruct a thing. (This generally involves being able to put it back together again at some point. A meal, a computer, the logic underlying an author’s argument.) You can unravel it. (Unweave a weaving, leaving the material ready for another go.) But decomposing something seems importantly different from these two.
We tend to imagine a rotting thing as a repulsive thing. The smell, the mess. The presence of death. Maggots or other vermin, perhaps. Swarms of life that are out of our control, and might follow us into place they’re not welcome or invited. The lemon liquefying in the refrigerator drawer, neglected. The yogurt languishing half-eaten in its container, expired. Where death is present, so is our own death. Where unplanned and uncontrolled – uncontrollable – life is present, so is our own chaos. The decomposing thing is a mirror. It demands that when we look at it we also see and acknowledge our own mess and potential failure. (Is it possible to see rot without seeing our own decomposition, in some way and on some level?)
What would it be to integrate that experience into a compositional process? Not to rot deliberately, but to rot artfully? It would involve relinquishing control over what’s happening, and accepting that you will not be able to return the changed thing back to what it had been. It would involve accepting, working with, acknowledging the role of death in the making possible of things. It would involve inviting mess and failure into the work and the process.
What is a writing practice modeled on an artful rotting?
You can come watch me talk about my new book.
Next week, on June 16 I’ll be giving a Zoomytalk about Translating Early Modern China: Illegible Cities (Oxford, 2021) for Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asia Institute. It’s free, and you can register at this link.
In the next newsletter, I’ll share some updates on a groovy collaborative project on worms and wormholes, and introduce you to something that might at some point coalesce into a kind of magical housekeeping manual. With any luck, the US version of Translating Early Modern China might even be available online. We’ll see how it goes: there will be room, here, for either kvetching or celebrating. Have a good one in the meantime!