A lot like him

A black and white picture of author as a toddler with her father, as they both were sitting on a circular large stool, she grinned to the camera bearing her teeth. Her father watched him endearingly.

My father’s supposedly 64th birthday is tomorrow.

Holed up in the new home that we moved in 5 years ago — shared with my mother — during this Movement Control Order period, I think a lot about what he would react if he is still around. He would probably be like one of those stubborn suburban uncles of Kuala Kedah, still jetting around in his motorcycle to visit his friends and refusing to sanitise the moment he gets home. My father was a reckless, passionate, sometimes gullible Aries — voraciously indulging in his role as a doting father, an annoying husband (he was known to sing out loud in public places, much to my mother’s embarrassment), a funny uncle, a responsible and sometimes too acquiescent son, and strangely, somewhat an intimidating manager at work. He was made humbled by the rigidity and practicality of my Capricorn mother’s incessant ways of keeping him grounded, financials and mood in check. In between them, stands his number one flaky, sometimes too much of an idealist Aquarius fan. Me. The three of us made a solid road-tripping team, tearing through the roads with ABBA and Fleetwood Mac playing at full volume in the car, stopping briefly for any Ramlee burger and air sirap from the stalls with questionable hygiene — the privilege we had taken for granted before — along the roadside.

After my father’s death, after way too many conversations, I found out from my mother that he was once offered for a degree abroad after he finished his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) but he was unable to get any scholarships. I always knew he wanted to become a pilot, but by totting around a pair of glasses as thick as a brick, he knew he wouldn’t pass the eyesight requirements. I was also always told I’m “a lot like him”, although I often largely believe this to be my temper whenever I encounter any reckless driver on the road. I never knew, like me, he also had an inclination towards activism and social justice, largely involved in the student activist protests against the AUKU in the 1970s. My mother said he was among those arrested and then bailed by my grandfather (my mum’s father). He’s reckless, my mother said. He doesn’t think of how much he would worry us, she continued. Men are like that sometimes, I answered, fully aware of my lack of experience and refusal of handling men myself. But he did that because he had the point, this I refused to debate with my mother.

There was an article on Al-Jazeera written by Krish Ragav, where he wrote about discovering his father’s Kraftwerk album collection after he passed away, and in extension, the knowledge of his early life as a Naxalite student activist in 1970s Kolkata. This was a knowledge the author, an activist himself, was unaware of, despite being told that he was “a lot like him”. Ragav wrote, “They say you only begin to understand your parents after they have passed away, but you also begin to understand yourself, their absence like the negative space around your silhouette, suddenly sharp.” Someone also once told me, when your loved one passed away, you found yourself suddenly divided into two clear phases — B.C. and A.D. — which stands for Before Ceasing and After Death respectively. Like the two epochs, they also represented particular stages in history before and after something (death) takes place, and like the two epochs as well, they affect one’s identity tremendously before and after.

A few days ago, someone from the university sent me an email asking for help on his research, with just that in the content field “Hi, I need to meet you ASAP.” Two years ago, I would have probably shown up at his door, ready to go the extra mile of what it would take to help him, and in extension, for at least for him to credit me for something at the end of the paper he’s writing, doesn’t matter if the font is in the smallest size possible. But two days ago, without any hesitation, I typed up a brief, diplomatic email saying it was not possible to meet up these days, it’s the pandemic fgs, but here are the ways I could help you from afar. He only replied OK, just that, and although I haven’t heard anything much from him yet, I have always believed what’s meant for me will never elude me. Two years ago, I would have probably been racking with guilt (for what?) whenever I sent such a forthright email. I am not the person I was two years ago anymore.

In the mind of my relatives, they always thought — in part of my position as an only child — my dad had left me more than enough. They were talking about financial inheritances, and for that I was glad he was financially conscious — to which should also be credited to my mother’s insistent reminders for him to save up as well. But they never knew how he left leaving me with just enough, financial or otherwise — like the bears of whose home invaded by Goldilocks, that white woman — so that I know to live in the safety of love and comfort, but not too indulged, not too deprived. There were two versions of me before and after his death — two completely opposing identities — one too accommodating, another no-nonsense after being dealt with too many fires — but both just as loved, both just as compassionate, both just as powerful.

Happy 64th birthday, Babah.

A list of possibly nicer things this time:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Chanel Miller’s Know My Name and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell.
  • Listening: My Ruthless Companion from Kronos Quartet and Persian classical singers, Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat.
  • Viewing: This priest in Italy forgot to turn off his video filters before he started livestreaming, and so hilarity ensues.
  • Food & Drink: Scheduled a Zoom call with a friend today, so gorged on passion fruit tea, affogato, some crisps, and nasi goreng.

When this is all over

A few days ago, WITI sent out an edition about how language impacts understanding. There were a few paragraphs where the contributor, Lizzie Shupak, talks about how people use language way before the written words were invented. As someone who is almost obsessive with documenting everything in writing, I am very intrigued as to how documents other than written forms were used to encode enormous amounts of information, as relayed in the article. For instance, it was found that indigenous communities throughout history maintain their wealth of information, “encyclopedic quantities of knowledge about plants and animals, land usage and management, rules and morality, and a huge number of other areas by attaching stories, songs, performance, and ceremony to specific objects”. The ancient Greeks used the method of loci, or the memory palace made famous by Sherlock Holmes, “to mentally walk through familiar physical environments in order to memorize their speeches”. In a sense, it reminded me of the way the Quran was passed to us Muslims through memorisation by Prophet Muhammad, which was then picked up by his friends and families, and all by hafizs (memorisers) all throughout the world and history, although the method of memorisation was never revealed.

I wonder how we’ll tell each other stories about this pandemic crisis after it is over. I say this with a vague operationalisation about what ‘it’ entails, but I am hoping it will be filled with stories of hope, courage, and determination of the frontliners — the health service workers, the cleaners, the grocery workers, the delivery workers, the postmen etc. — in short, the maintainers. And less and none at all about the CEOs and the billionaires holding their hugeass check to donate in the name of the philanthropy when they were the ones who have been hogging the wealth all of this while.

And while those of us who have the privilege to be holed up at home, we must think of the conditions that made this all possible, and how it is not possible for others — a sign of uneven distribution, a sign of inequality. It’s already clear that life in a few months or years will not be the same as what it was. The human cost has already swept into the lives of their unfortunate victims, and we can see this in the evidence of people losing jobs due to the virus, those who still do move their work online, those who are afraid of staying home due to domestic abuse stay anyway and pray they are not being killed, those having to survive on less than $2 a day, and so on so forth. This pandemic crisis has upended our lives in many ways, and highlighted the realities we might have unintentionally overlooked, or intentionally in a Beszellian and UI Qoman sense. But if we want to emerge out of this — again with a vague definition of ‘this’ — slightly scathed, but still with full determination, this is the time for us to rethink about our relationships, our work, our division of labour, what we can give back to the society, what to prioritise, what sort of leadership we want, and how we can do better. When we keep talking about what we want to do when all of ‘this’ ends, we should think the things we should be thinking of critically in the event of no disaster, no calamity — and we should also think of how not to forget about taking action about them when this is all over. And hopefully, when this is all over, we can come out the other side with a greater level of care, understanding, and empathy for one another, regardless of our backgrounds, our ethnicities, our religions, our nationalities, all differences fuck all.

Coronavirus-related reads:

Other reads:

  • 76 solutions we already have for the climate crisis.
  • For those who have started to work from home, here’s a crowdsourced remote work survival kit packed with useful tips on just about everything.
  • “Looking at it this way, the popularity of superhero culture among aficionados of new technological entrepreneurship seems obvious. It’s a culture that celebrates individual agency at the expense of the collective. Things get done by charismatic individuals rather than by the state.” What does the superhero craze say about our own times?
  • “This is the year that squatters evict landlords.”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Chanel Miller’s Know My Name and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell.
  • Listening: Call Your Girlfriend episode on Corona Community. “Everyone wants to freak out, but also no no one wants to change their behaviour.”
  • Watching: Picked up this International Relations online course / lecture in Future Learn for a possible teaching position. I’m about to possibly teach — who would have thought?!
  • Food & Drink: I couldn’t find the energy to cook today, so I only made buttered pasta and washed it down with passion fruit tea.

And the elites panicked

Last Friday, the Malaysian government announced that they were going to enlist military ‘help’ to curb the abundance of people not abiding the Movement Control Order (MCO) beginning Sunday. Upon hearing this, one of my elderly aunts who lives nearby with her teenage grandson called my mum, crying and almost losing her mind, begging for us to pick her and the kid up to stay at our place. I am glad my mother had the sense to console her that this was not going to be possible, that it would be different if they were staying with us before and/or there was no deadly infectious virus going around — the very reason the MCO is enforced — and that the military was just there to ‘help’ — and she eventually calmed down. Anyone without any prior knowledge as to why my aunt was freaking out would think she was overreacting. But for context, the many frames of references when it comes to the state of emergency and curfew involving military intervention in the mind of my elderly aunt, who is older than mum by any stretch, are these two events that have shaped our country tremendously: the Japanese invasion of Malaya, and the 1969 racial riot. Even so, without any one of us not having experienced any of the events, military deployment into the civilian spaces should be considered as a last resort by any ‘functioning’ government and not to be normalised. I say ‘functioning’ because we need to be reminded this new Malaysian government is one that is borne not out of a democratic electoral means like it should be, hence every single decision of theirs — like all governments’ anyway — should always be critically analysed and challenged. I say ‘functioning’ because in an event of a disaster just like today, a properly functioning government should approach through an empathetic lens — such as freezing rents and loans, providing better safety nets for workers, proper funding for hospitals, and so on so forth. Shifting the frame from the government failure to the frame of ‘delinquent citizens’ in any way, is completely unacceptable. Not only that, rushing to enlist military deployment could induce panic, like in the case of my aunt. I wonder how many elderly people and people recovering from trauma going berserk upon hearing the announcement, because military = bad.

I am rereading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell right now, where this page complements the flawed idea of romanticising military involvement in civilian spaces:

A page from Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise in Hell explaining the condition of elite panic, where the elites fear disruption of the social order which could challenge their legitimacy.

When fear manifests among the elites as the social order is disrupted in the middle of disasters, they turn to impose strict control on us, rather than mitigating issues from a more empathetic, inclusive lens. It is called elite panic, and the strict control here in the current Malaysian context, is the military intervention.

Coronavirus-related reads:

Other reads:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, and Chanel Miller’s Know My Name.
  • Viewing: Haven’t watched anything today, unfortunately.
  • Listening: Westerman, a West Londoner musician who mixes folk-like lyrics with synthetic choral melodies and skeletal percussion.
  • Food & Drink: I plucked my first pineapple from my own tree, and made pajeri nenas today.

This terrifying purgatory

As we were stuck inside the house on the sixth day of our voluntary isolation, I realised I have been on my obsessive drive again.

This is the pattern I recognised I had unintentionally adopted years while working my previous role — whenever I worry about work, I throw myself into more work and assign myself as many tasks as possible. Then I would compulsively tested and tried the tasks, until I soon burn out. I remember my previous coworkers noted one time, that as they signed in to work after long Eid holidays — still sluggish and still trying to shake off holiday mode — I already flung myself into work the first hour I set in. To others, I am this super productive coworker, always reliable and ready for challenges. Then after my 2016 Major Work Burnout, I was diagnosed with high-functioning anxiety, and my perspective widened. I realised that my ‘productivity’ manifests out of my worry about losing control, and in order for that not to happen, I would make a point to devise smaller tasks which would give me an illusion of a better control. But I soon realised a lot of things were not solely my individual responsibility (like a flawed work culture that can be improved, or capitalism!) and in extension, not solely my fault, so in time I learned to take things easier and to forgive myself whenever I ‘slack off’.

This pattern returned.

I had been on voluntary isolation two days before the government imposed the movement control order (MCO), yet when it was made formal — there’s this official body with questionable governance (remember this is a government borne out of the recent coup) telling you to stay home — it slaps harder and differently. The first day of the MCO, I was at the brink of devastation, but I could not understand why (I do now). The second day, author and friend Hanna, totally as helpless, decided to compile a thread of initiatives to donate to during the MCO (official website), and I helped to spread the word. My friend A, of whom I am eternally grateful for, decided to check in with me through texts every day. I decided to return the favour — in emulating the viral spread — by checking in with other friends through small chats every day. More so than cat videos, more than general memes, this was a check in intended to see how everyone cope in these trying times. I am currently reading two books at the same time, and a third one arrived yesterday. I decided to start another Coursera course, and signed up to multiple online book clubs. I read and wrote (but never published) for hours every day. I cleaned and disinfected every corner of the house, till I grew tired and fell asleep on my own.

This is the pattern I adopted to replicate any semblance of order, because I have no control of what’s going outside. The world inside the house and outside are two contradictory worlds — inside, we are trapped in the monotony of our daily lives, while outside, the news and the spread of the virus itself is careening out of control. I am scared, and I know there are millions of others who are too because we talk about this every day and even if we don’t, we hear each other as our voices reverberated and coalesced across social media and voice calls and video calls.

The world out there is not OK, and I learned to recognise this. I also learned to recognise that it is never going to be the same after this — months, years, decades — after all of this terrifying state of purgatory subsides. I learned to recognise that this whole situation demands more than cleaning and rearranging and disinfecting every corner of my house, or anyone’s house for that matter. It requires reconstructing the whole universe we are in, and in these times we should start to think about which societal pillars of ours worth rebuilding, as millions of workers lost their jobs, as millions of tenants worry about their rent, as millions of people beg for ventilators and hospital beds as the number of virus casualties arise — while the rich get to escape away in an island with their personal nurses, for instance.

This is not OK, I learned to recognise this. We are currently facing a deadly virus that manages to imbue itself within the healthy to infect and kill the sick and the weak, and for now there is no way for us to know if we the healthy carry it unaware. This is why it’s the time for us, the healthy and able, to revalue and strengthen our moral compass so we don’t unknowingly harm the sick and the weak.

I learned to recognise this is not OK, but for now I take comfort in the smallest gestures, such as our check in texts every morning. We still have each other.

Coronavirus-related reads:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, and China Mieville’s The City and the City. Chanel Miller’s Know My Name also arrived yesterday, so that’s going to the TBR list.
  • Viewing: Stop whatever you are doing now and watch these penguins!
  • Listening: How an astrophysicist works remotely from the South Pole.
  • Food & Drinks: I made out of the house today to restock on groceries, but it was eerily calm and quiet and I was so heavily sanitised my palms are taut. I haven’t thought of what to cook yet, but the pantry supply is enough for a month at least, and I am grateful for that now.

Movement: restricted

An aerial view shows an eerily empty white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, on March 6, 2020.

An eerie emptiness enveloped the sacred Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, where attendance at Friday prayers was hit by measures to protect against the deadly new coronavirus.

Yesterday, it was announced by our new, hijacked Prime Minister that Malaysia is put under restricted movement order beginning today, carrying a few restrictions which included a ban on mass gatherings, closure of business premises (with an exception of essential services), schools, and higher education institutes, and travel ban to and out of the country.

Prior to the announcement, the misinformation that a lockdown will be instated had been making its rounds in Whatsapp groups. People rush to the grocery stores stockpiling on every item they could get their hands on — toilet paper, instant noodle, canned food, and other essentials. In another side of the panic/non-panic spectrum, people talked about going to bars and their favourites restaurants before the order took hold. Some lamented about cancelling their holidays that they have been looking forward to. Some business owner stressed that this is hard for them, and some took to social media to crowdsource answers on the extent of their moral responsibility towards their employees — should we pay their salaries in advance? how do we work from home now? should we put them on unpaid leave? Some went ahead and took initiative to respond in the most humanely way possible, and there might be others who did the same that escaped my attention.

In short, a pandemonium.

I have worked from home for 7 years, yet when it is reframed in this context of virus outbreak right now where you are not to leave home unless absolutely necessary, I couldn’t help feeling much lonelier & overwhelmed than before. I have been on an active job hunt for the past month, making a goal to send one job application every day, but I have been feeling extra sluggish for the last two days that I decided to forgive myself, take things slow, and be reminded that things that are meant for me will never elude me. Every morning, as we deal with this ‘new normal’, the phrase “hi just checking in” had become a dominant theme of all of my chat groups. In most ways, my friends and I are all devastated of the fact that this is the first time we could not help those who more immunosuppressed by being physically closer to them like we often did. I am currently responsible for my elderly mother, and two other elderly aunts who live nearby, but I understand that by going to visit them, I am putting them in a more precarious situation. Despite not showing any symptoms, I could be the vector of the illness and carry on to them, and it hurts me to think I might be indeliberately complicit in the spread. I am also living amidst an interconnected community where there are some elderly people and possibly some other immunocompromised folks living amongst us, so for the first time I decided to join the neighbourhood Whatsapp group so I could lend a (virtual) hand whenever I could.

When I see tweets of people hoarding toilet papers, or lamenting about their cancelled holidays or wedding receptions, I try to see it from the most survivalist perspective rather than the communal view we often strive for. I understand they might be thinking: what will happen is this is the new normal forever? What will happen if our movement is going to be restricted indefinitely? What will happen if our routines and practices that make us who we were before would not return to us? This is why we are still seeing Instagram Stories of our friends going to bars and brunch, captioned “one last time before the lockdown”.

For a lot of people, the fear is much more confounded. Some fear losing their jobs, their family, and the worse, their own lives. Some had already lost one or more than all of these mentioned. I am also thinking of those who couldn’t afford to stay home for various reasons, the frontliners (the retail workers, the health officers, the delivery people etc. absolutely not the politicians!) those who had to work from home out of no choice, those who lost their jobs, those without homes, and also those whose home are not necessarily the safest place to be, among others.

The uncertainty, the what ifs — these are what got some people saying ‘life must go on’, call it what you want — cognitive dissonance, a denial, the new Marshmallow Test — but in truth, this is a society that is scared of its own unravelling and scared that we cannot rebuild it the same way again. And right now, in order to ensure that we do, the only courage we need — more so than licking the toilet seats as part of the coronavirus challenge, more so than brunch — is to stay the fuck home, and let the other people who could not, do their jobs.

When this is all over, where’s one place you can’t wait to go?

Coronavirus related reads:

Other reads:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: China Mieville’s The City and the City, and I thought it was also apt to reread Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell.
  • Listening: Cooped up in my Covid bunker, I thought it’s the perfect time to make use of my saved recipes — but instead I ended up listening to more cooking podcasts. I am really loving this Splendid Table episode featuring four Persian cooks — Samin Nosrat, Naz Deravian, Najmieh Batmanglij, and Behzad Jamshidi (because I love Persian food), and Samin also just launched her own podcast called Home Cooking where she dispenses tips on cooking during the quarantine and social distancing.
  • Viewing: Elite Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix. Perfect time to watch these Spanish beauties while isolating myself.
  • Food & Drink: On the third day of self-quarantine, I made fish curry to have with rice. I have a huge tub of vanilla ice-cream, will probably make some affogato later.

We don’t exist in isolation

This week as the number of Covid-19 casualties arises, multiple countries fell into lockdown, while others started to issue bans and strongly urge for social distancing, my family decided to pursue with the 1000-pax wedding reception for my cousin anyway. It is complicated to convince a large Kedahan family — think of us as like the Greek version, just as loud, just as huge, just as gossipy, just the same amount of lack of personal boundaries — to make the event small, or postpone. In fact, almost impossible. So what I did at the reception was take all the general precautions I could — no touching or shaking hands, no kissing cheeks, keeping distance, compulsively washing hands, and reminding people to do so as much as possible I seemed almost deranged. It felt almost ironic to take comfort that I am not alone in trying to convince the elderlies I am taking care of to take this virus seriously while I am worried sick and telling them this is more than themselves — because even if you are spared, you might be carrying it and infect others who are more immunocompromised.

I have been obsessively reading about the virus — from general information to technological development to the somewhat alarmist pieces as well as the pieces that made us feel hopeful in our strength as a society in this crumbling mankind. But what I felt frustrated was for, I am hoping, a low number of people who take the global pandemic so casually, seen so cavalierly out drinking and partying and attending mass gatherings, while there are health officers and civil workers out there who could not afford to stay in and be more exposed to the virus anyway. Drew Austin from Kneeling Bus wrote, “While other disasters instantly draw us together, a quality Walker Percy praised, the virus demands social distance, accelerating an experiment that was already well underway before this upheaval: the individualism that we’ve all internalised over time — which is partially structural, but also a development we’ve welcomed as consumers.” So we panic buy and stock up and mark up the prices with intentional disregard for those more in need, because all of these while we have been trained — by our political leaders who are often trigger happy to divide and conquer us, our institutions, even our own callousness to look around, read the room, and acquire the social awareness — to put ourselves first before the community. In these times, I never fail to be reminded of Anne Helen Peterson’s ever haunting question: how much do you care about other people?

I say this as much to myself as to all of you — you can channel some of that anxious energy away from reading articles on the internet and towards thinking about who in your life and in your community will certainly need help or assistance. Who can you talk to now to make a plan to help them later? (With supplies, with groceries, with their pets or children) If you’re able, can you donate to your local food bank, or donate additional supplies to the homeless shelter? Can you buy things from local businesses, restaurants, and artists now, so that things might be less lean for them in the months to come? If you’re someone who’s high risk, how can you be honest with yourself and others about it? If you’re able to work from home and still pull your normal salary, can you commit to still paying someone who provides you with a service (a housecleaner, a dog walker, a hairdresser, a yoga teacher, etc) even if they have to stay home?

But also in rethinking what social pillars of ours that needed to rebuild in times of crisis, we can reframe our care more than just for humans, as Anab Jain’s call for more than human politics, which includes an ecological form of politics too, concludes: “we don’t exist in isolation, we never have. And we are now entering a time where we face our own destruction if we continue to live in the illusion of isolation.”

We are all in this together, we always have. So let’s get to work.

Coronavirus-related reads:

Other reads, largely technology in the intersection of politics, the kind of stuff I am researching and paying attention to:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Just finished Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, and this paper on gendered online violence in preparation for a conference in October.
  • Viewing: My friend A made me watch Season 2 of Ugly Delicious, specifically on the episode about meat, Mediterranean food, and the conversation about the arbitrariness of borders when it comes to food, and it made me miss Levantine food so bad! And this calming video of a man making a mug on a ceramic wheel.
  • Listening: Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó. He fled Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and landed in California, and started to create music of many genres, including jazz, pop, and Hungarian folk. Thank you Flow State for the recommendation.
  • Food & Drink: I have been on voluntary isolation (to be honest when I have not?) so I have stocked the kitchen with lots of coffee and had been living on fried rice.

Turn down the volume a little

A friend who was transitioning into a new position at work asked me the other day if I have ever thought about my working style, which I definitely do. For some reasons — of which I’d like to believe I am always a driven person and have a great amount of self-discipline — I always end up in a managing or a leading role wherever I work. I am also a very strategic person, where I see things could be approached just as how we play chess. Because of this combination of personality, my perceived authority at work tends to overshadow others and my outspokenness often unintentionally drown out the voices of other team members who are shy or more introvert. Because of this combination of personality as well, the other team members tend to rely heavily on me, and in extension I unwittingly reached into the glass cliff and enabled their reluctance to professionally grow. In awareness of this current working style I have and the weaknesses, I needed to do better by learning to trust and delegate, and to turn down my volume a little.

Speaking of turning down the volume a little, I was reminded of two articles where a privileged group of people (as always) tend to be given more space and magnification more so than those who had been doing the work for a number of years. The first is from Maria Farrell on the “ethics transformation” of tech bros of the likes of Tristan Harris, where she says, “I wish all these guys well. I also wish that the many, exhausted activists who didn’t take money from Google or Facebook could have even a quarter of the attention, status and authority the Prodigal Techbro assumes is his birth-right.” The article also lists down the names of the digital rights activists and ethicists — like Nighat Dad who runs the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, Gus Hosein who runs Privacy International, the UK-based non-profit, Bianca Wylie who founded the volunteer-run Open Data Institute Toronto and works on open data, citizen privacy and civic engagement, Aral Balkan who runs Small Technology Foundation, hvale vale who works tirelessly on championing women’s rights, sexual rights and the political and practical path to a feminist internet, and many others — who are more rightful of this attention.

design thinking diagram in yellow

The second article was written by German professor Adrian Daub, who recounts his experience going through a design thinking workshop for academics. The facilitator explained, while the participants were playing with Legos as part of the exercises, that design thinking is meant to ‘reframe’ the things we are always doing in a new context. Specifically to this workshop, the exercise was meant for the participants, all academics, to learn to centre the students and their learning in order to create an ideal syllabus. A participant nudged Daub, “I mean, what do they think we do when we design a syllabus? Do they seriously think we don’t think about our students?” This was a situation I did not consider years ago as I myself graduated from a design course where design thinking was part of the syllabus. We learned, rather arrogantly, that our expertise was always needed, and that our ‘assistance’ is meant so that we can swoop in and ‘help’ our clients to find their way to engage their intended audience. What we forgot to ask, the same in this case, is that how much our clients already knew? And rather than taking the lead, maybe let them lead instead? Daub wrote, “It’s a question that all of us have asked of the tech industry and its thought leaders. When they sweep in and confidently disrupt an industry, when they remove the middleman in a long-standing process, the question almost forces itself on you: what is it that you think we were doing before you came along?” Centering those who actually matter and having the tech people take the back seat is also the premise of Sasha Costanza-Chock’s new book Design Justice — an exploration of how design might be led by marginalised communities, dismantle structural inequality, and advance collective liberation and ecological survival, as what design should be.

Now on the personal front: I have been sending numerous cover letters this month as I narrowed down my career aim as a product manager. Among the two main questions posed by these companies at the point of applying were: “What could you bring to the team?” and “Why do you want to become a product manager at our company?”. The first I understand (please correct me if I am wrong) is how your personal attributes could bring value to the team — attributes which I have mentioned above: a strategic thinker, a leader material, perpetually curious (the last time I got curious I produced a 365-page PhD thesis), high amount of self-discipline etc. and how I could tie these attributes specific to the role I am applying. The second is much trickier, as in the right sense of words, I have never been a proper Product Manager before. I was a Project Manager in the capacity of a Product Manager before, seeing it was a small company and we all learned together along the way. From my understanding of my online research and my current Coursera Product Management course as well, there is no definite answer as to what the role of Product Manager entails. A PM can zoom in and out, have a detailed view of the engineering (or not), have a high level of autonomy in business direction (or not), and so on so forth. The role is quite fluid, and it seems that in order to answer the question, I needed to know how the company is run first — how much rein do they give their PM? I decided at this point of time, I would answer according to the rein that I decide for myself: as a PM who is within the intersection of high abstraction and business-facing axis, and less on low abstraction and engineering-facing one.

Saeed Jones asked in his newsletter today: “You just invented a time machine that allows you to visit a past version of yourself for three minutes. Your invention also allows you to take one object with you to give to yourself. What version of your self are you visiting? What are you going to say? What are you going to offer?”

My answer? “I would visit 20-year-old me, out of the town for the first time in her life. I’d tell her to say no to the man who asked her to marry him, and to run the other way, like, SPRINT and never look back — and perhaps take up that offer to the university in Germany. I’d bring her a copy of my PhD thesis, and tell her, you would probably be more capable than doing this today if you listen to me now. But even if she doesn’t, I would still love her, she (and I) are still loved, and we are both powerful nevertheless.”

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: 50% in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow.
  • Listening: This interview Aminatou Sow of Call Your Girlfriend had with Glennon Doyle, author of the book Untamed which encourages women to break out of being good daughters, mothers, partners and be good to ourselves — and then, in living fuller lives, we can be better to our people and the world. Shit, this episode is so good.
  • Viewing: This bookbinding scene from Little Women.
  • Food & Drink: Got some nasi lemak and made some earl grey latte.

My power is always here

In my adventure (that is how I am reframing it now) of job hunting, one thing I caught myself often doing is to visit the company’s websites and took a look at the pictures of the people who worked there. I did this in no way to be stalkerish, but just to see if there is someone in the company who looked like me — Asian, brown, woman, and most importantly, a hijabi, and in extension, visibly Muslim. Sadly, I haven’t seen anyone who looked like me yet in any of the companies I applied for.

I kept thinking of what this means for me, and for others who look like me. If I join this company, what does it mean to be the first visibly Muslim woman, or anyone in the margins within the dynamics that centre whiteness, to join an organisation whose entire lineup consists of people who don’t look like you? Is the first always good, but does it mean the companies weren’t ready to accept anyone who looked like me before, or if there isn’t anyone who looked like me applying at all? If I become the first visibly Muslim woman in the company, could I remain to hold the door open for someone who looked like me, and as talented as myself to join the organisation too? — which I really want to do!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about writing for people who looked like me. In Malaysia, I am part of the majority — Muslim woman, hijabi, cisgender, lower middle class, with some higher education, polyglot, and of Malay ethnicity. The last part is the most important and the most privileged out of the whole intersections, as it is tied to the ethnic group which makes me as a bumiputera, or ‘son of the soil’, rendering me eligible to a lot of rights the other ethnicities of the country don’t. But more so than these identities, I have been thinking to write about someone particularly like me — an only child who had never got into trouble, and who had to put her dreams on hold for now in place of caregiving for an elderly parent, or anything of that sort. I haven’t heard any of those voices, maybe partly because I haven’t read just as widely, maybe also because someone else hasn’t written stories about us. Saeed Jones wrote in his newsletter about writing to save yourself so the future you would thank you — because no one else would write about you but yourself. Alexander Chee, in interviewing Ursula K. Le Guin, mentioned the esteemed science fiction writer had to teach herself to write as a woman, and in learning this, he learned how to write about himself — Asian-American, gay, activist, son, brother, a man of a repertoire of interests. I think it’s about time I start to learn to write about myself too.

Today Chanel Miller posted a series of pictures in her Instagram account — the first picture shows of her a year ago, sitting outside the courtroom while going over her notes in preparation for the trial of her assault case. The next two picture and video show her signing her book at the Sydney Opera House, surrounded by people who are inspired by her resilience, and she was clearly overjoyed. But what struck me the most was her last paragraph in the caption (emphasis mine): “These photos are not a weak to powerful comparison, not a before and after. My power was always there, it just took on a different, quieter form. I was also loved in both photos. But in the first one, I didn’t understand why, and in the second one I fully do. Wherever you are in your timeline, keep going. Life will stun you.” I have no words except that I love her.

Thank you for reminding me that my power is always here.

In my tabs:

  • Very important article on channelling our worries into action regarding the coronavirus outbreak from Anne Helen Petersen: “I say this as much to myself as to all of you — you can channel some of that anxious energy away from reading articles on the internet and towards thinking about who in your life and in your community will certainly need help or assistance. Who can you talk to now to make a plan to help them later? (With supplies, with groceries, with their pets or children) If you’re able, can you donate to your local food bank, or donate additional supplies to the homeless shelter? Can you buy things from local businesses, restaurants, and artists now, so that things might be less lean for them in the months to come? If you’re someone who’s high risk, how can you be honest with yourself and others about it? If you’re able to work from home and still pull your normal salary, can you commit to still paying someone who provides you with a service (a housecleaner, a dog walker, a hairdresser, a yoga teacher, etc) even if they have to stay home?”
  • “We should prepare, not because we may feel personally at risk, but so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone. We should prepare not because we are facing a doomsday scenario out of our control, but because we can alter every aspect of this risk we face as a society. That’s right, you should prepare because your neighbours need you to prepare — especially your elderly neighbours, your neighbours who work at hospitals, your neighbours with chronic illnesses, and your neighbours who may not have the means or the time to prepare because of lack of resources or time.” Preparing for coronavirus to hit the US (and elsewhere).
  • I love Moses Sumney‘s music but I had no idea his music — his dreamy music! — centres around the idea of aromanticism (which is also one of his album titles), the inability to engage in romantic attachment.
  • Reading in the age of ads.
  • “I have been woman / for a long time / beware my smile“.

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a story in the 1920s Jazz Age about a Mexican girl who found herself entangled between the feud of two Mayan gods.
  • Listening: Moses Sumney!
  • Viewing: Hakan Muhafız, the Turkish series about a young shopkeeper who found out he was connected to a secret ancient order tasked with protecting Istanbul from an immortal enemy, is out on Netflix today with its third season. Going to watch it!
  • Food & Drink: Tealive (my favourite Malaysian boba chain) had the buy one free one promotion, so of course I got one two!

Poetic commute

Jessica Hibbard in her delightful Overlap newsletter, of which I often look forward to receiving every week, wrote, “In one of my favorite books about writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg advocates for noticing things and developing sentences in your head before writing them down. A small, 17-syllable poem is is easy enough to manipulate without committing anything to paper, and I started to feel the shapes and rhythms of words in a different way.” She then recounted her experiences of constructing short poems during her commute to work. This exercise of noticing things and structuring her poems/thoughts before finally putting it on paper made her think, was she a better human because she wrote little poems, or did she write little poems because she was a better human?

I admitted I haven’t gotten around to noticing things as much these days. I am not sure if it’s because if I commute, it means I am the one driving — and when I drive, my focus will be entirely on the logistics of getting us safely from point A to point B and there is some linearity in that sense. More so than that, as I drive my mother around these days, I cease to think of driving as something pleasant, but more of a duty. Having noted this, I must find a way to notice again and write little poems while at that.

Unfortunately I will not be attending Women’s March in Kuala Lumpur again this weekend, but I will print out one of these posters designed by the collective Design for Activism (I am thinking of the one below where it says “none of us is free until all of us are free”) and as a feminist aunt to high-spirited teenage nieces I am making a conscious effort to speak to my girls about International Women’s Day, our demands for this year and the significance of every one of them and how these demands will impact their lives, and the importance of upholding themselves more so than their identities as someone’s daughter or wife, but as a human being with their own agency and rights to be respected. Are you marching this year?

A poster for Women's March Malaysia written "none of us is free until all of us are free" in Malay

Articles and a poem I am reading:

  • “I started seeing fat, beautiful models and actresses in catalogues, and on television shows. I would like to have seen more, but I was pleased to see them at all. I was and remain in awe of their confident beauty. I feel tenderness for them as well, for what they endured, and still endure, to achieve it. I sometimes choke up with love for them, and for the idea of how I could have lived if I had allowed myself to just weigh what I weighed.”
  • How coronavirus exposed inequality among workers.
  • Twitter wants to have Stories feature too?!
  • “I find that men who can sustain long, close friendships with women are more in tune with what women expect from one another and what we long for from our male friends and lovers,” says Maggie, a 35-year-old seamstress in New York. “Men sometimes think women’s emotional demands are unreasonable because they don’t realise that she’s asking for something she’d consider a bare minimum from a friend.” Maggie adds that it’s an “even greener flag if they’re lesbians,” indicating an ability to see women as independent and fully human rather than only as potential lovers.” Let’s talk about green flags that would make men worth dating.
  • Here we go again, as Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race. “And so we are, once again, being asked to question whether a woman is “electable” by which we really mean whether all of her qualifications for the job can outweigh the fact that she is a woman.”
  • Gretchen McCullouch, author of Because Internet, on having a weird Internet career.
  • “…at seven years old, i already knew the exhaustion of hearing my name butchered by hammerhead tongues.”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Still in the midst of bell hooks’ Teaching Critical Thinking.
  • Listening: Jazz drummer, Idris Muhammad. He was quite a prodigy, and if you haven’t heard his name yet, his songs had been sampled by the likes of Jamie xx, Drake, Beastie Boys, and Biggie. Thanks Flow State for the recommendation. Also this podcast from NASA, cleverly named Houston We Have a Podcast, on the subject of the Overview Effect, where human beings come to the realisation that there really is only one earth, and we’re all linked by systems as big as the climate and as small as replicating molecules.
  • Viewing: Started watching I Am Not Okay With This on Netflix. And this 1.8 billion pixel panorama of Mars!
  • Food & Drink: I love my cold brew and you will never get to pry it from my cold, dead hands. Also, I had oden.

Having to listen to EDM for three weeks

The other day I posted a picture of Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel book on Instagram, with the cover clearly visible. My friend E, the passionate Turkish Aries of whom I met during my year doing MA in London, who has the tendency to talk with her hands flailing and who blushes at any slightest signs of inconveniences (hence her nickname kırmızı domates — red tomato in Turkish), commented, “So are you writing yours?”. I explained to her that this is actually a book of Chee’s essays, and to answer her question about me writing my own autobiographical novel, with almost no hesitation I answered, “I would love to, only I have to find out what’s interesting about myself!” It took me a few days to realise how easily I threw myself under the bus for something I totally am capable to do if I want to (writing an autobiographical novel) and for the flawed internalised belief that there is nothing interesting about myself. Me! Whose personal statement took only two days to be accepted into my MA! Who gallivanted solo across multiple countries, and who lived for a month in a country of whose language I only learned once I set my foot there! Me — who had been dealt with enough fires already and walked out unscathed! How dare I sideline myself and proclaim I have nothing interesting to tell about myself?

Russell Davies, a personal advertising hero of mine, who just came back from a holiday in America, said in his newsletter Afternoon Slow, “A thing I like about holidays is the way you hear different music floating around”, of which he observed of how some of the lyrics from 10,000 Hours by Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber sound like something out of Internet security questions: “Do you miss the road that you grew up on? Did you get your middle name from your grandma?” Russell, staying true to his adman self, posts these interesting, quirky observations like these pretty often which would make you think.

I would also want to propose the statement a bit differently, “You’d also hear songs differently when you are on holidays.” If you have ever listened to Norwegian DJ Kygo’s work, you would notice that he has this signature keyboard/synth tune (I wish I am a better music reviewer, I have no idea how to describe it) that presents all throughout his music. That tune would often take me back to some cold days in a basement Airbnb in Cihangir, Istanbul as Firestone plays on repeat — not by choice, but by the sheer funny punishment that my debit card expired as I was leaving for Turkey, hence I could not renew my Spotify subscription. In leaving the playlist where Kygo’s Firestone was playing, free Spotify account would default to the country I was in (Turkey) instead of the country where I first subscribed it (UK), and that would cause some of my other 200+ playlists unavailable. I had no choice but to have full three weeks of EDM music playing on my laptop in the cramped apartment, accompanied by the blowing of the horn of the ships in the Bosphorus, as I wait for my card to arrive. I could never listen to Kygo — well, if it ever shows up in my Spotify playlists again —without having this exact scene in my head.

In my tabs today:

  • When designing for an international audience with variable levels of literacy and numeracy, then you first need a good framework to measure, amongst other things, digital literacy.
  • As described by Rao himself, this piece is “a sprawling, messy hot take on the State of Textual Media.” A very useful and accessible article on understanding the development of textual media from technology, economic, and cultural standpoints.
  • Last Friday, the World Health Organisation made its debut on TikTok in an effort to combat rampant disinformation about the coronavirus. By Monday, the account had garnered nearly 162,000 followers and 1.2 million likes.
  • “The effects of name-signalling — what names say about ethnicity, religion, social sphere, and socioeconomic background — may begin long before someone enters the workforce. In a study of children in a Florida school district, conducted between 1994 and 2001, the economist David Figlio demonstrated that a child’s name influenced how he or she was treated by the teacher, and that differential treatment, in turn, translated to test scores. The relevant question may not be “What’s in a name?” but, rather, “What signals does my name send—and what does it imply?”” Why our names matter.
  • “Part of the soulful quality viewers find in Studio Ghibli films stems from the empathy shown not just to characters but to the environment and to how both need each other to survive. There is an almost animist relationship between the two, which is threatened time and again through development, war, and pollution.” On why we love Studio Ghibli animations.

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Reading progress has been slow these past few weeks, so I am still in the midst of bell hooks’ Teaching Critical Thinking and promised a friend a review.
  • Listening: French clarinetist, Yom. Give Dark Prayer a listen for a start. And this The Ezra Klein episode with Tracy K Smith on poetry.
  • Viewing: The Library of Nonhuman Books.
  • Food & Drink: Infused some tea with cinnamon sticks.