What can you trust of what you can’t see?

In his The Guardian essay, Teju Cole wrote about his love for photobooks, in what he described, “In an age of mayhem, everyone needs ballast and, for most people, I would guess, that ballast is made of several different things.” Other people’s ballasts, one that grounded them against all of the political squall and many other maladies of the modern world, would more than often consist of travels, retreats, books, and many others. His ballast was the photobooks, the coffee table kind. Unlike exhibitions, which are crowded and noisy, Cole says, you can look at the photographs in the photobooks at your own pace. A great photobook, according to Cole, is a combination of many variables: “the paper; print quality; stitching and binding; the weight, colour and texture of the cover; the design and layout of the interior; the size and colour balance of the images; the decision to use gatefolds or to print across the gutter; the choice to include or exclude text and, if so, how much of it, where in the book, and in what font; the trim size and heft of the book; even the smell of the ink! Every great photobook is a granary of decisions, an invitation into the realm of the senses.” Cole mentioned that if a poem or a book (content) is great, he hardly thinks about how the book is designed, but this is different when it comes to photobooks. My most recent read photobook would be After the Last Sky, which was how I learned about a searing portrait of Palestinian life and identity written by Edward Said through the photographs of Jean Mohr.

In these seven days of political squall happening in Malaysia, I keep thinking a lot about what Cole says about finding a ballast of your own that keeps you grounded. Possibly one that glues us together as a nation, as this is what we desperately need at this moment while the leaders screw us up and go on with their lives unpunished for national cardiac arrest they imposed upon us a few days ago. I keep returning to books, and then being aware that my retreat to books is solely individual, I think of resorting to libraries as a collective ballast.

As a kid in 1990s growing up before the age of the Internet, I used to spend my after school hours a lot at the library while waiting either my dad or mum to finish work early and pick me up. My mum taught at another school next to mine, and she often had to stay late to finish some administration works till 4 pm. Meanwhile, my dad, a technician working closer to the city, were sometimes lucky to be allowed home early. And thus, in between these hours, I’d find myself in the library. I remember my first checked out library book was Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, and I inhaled the book in just a few hours during that day itself, at the time totally oblivious of how feminist Bathsheba Everdene was. It was also no secret to close friends that if I am not who I am today — whatever my profession is, writer? PhD candidate? — I’d be a librarian. The idea of being surrounded by books and given the power and trust to curate what the whole community should be able to read sounds like a transformative task.

To me, libraries have always been about the idea of sharing and community. They are always open and welcoming. Anyone is allowed to be there. You could be someone like me — an only child from a lower middle class family who finds reading life-changing, or someone from a much lower income family who need to use the computers to do some research for the homework. Or a struggling civil servant with an entry-level job using the resources to learn about his tasks at work, or to look for more jobs which would pay him a more dignified wage. Or a 60-year-old pensioner who is here to read newspapers and participate in this collective isolation because the house he lives in seems so quiet after his children move out for universities and work. With the exception of paying a small fee to obtain a library card for the first time, no one is literally made to spend any cents to be there. Not only that, it seems radical that we (with the library cards) are so trusted to take a few books home, and returned them within the duration stipulated. Rebecca Solnit wrote, in reference to libraries as the ‘last refuges of a democratic vision of equality’, “I’ve joked for a long time that if you walked up to people in the street and asked them whether we could own our greatest treasures collectively and trust people to walk away with them and bring them back, a lot of people would say that’s impossibly idealistic and some would say it’s socialist, but libraries have been making books free for all for a very long time.”

I learned yesterday that in the dissolution of the Malaysian cabinet, all reforms are put to a halt. This includes the plans to renovate the dilapidated and outdated library of my city, one that was approved last year. If it was a success, it was said to host a number of new resources, a complete overhaul of the library collection, and a number of other amenities of which the people of my city would be able to enjoy. Among other reasons, I was especially furious when I heard this is not happening. For years, we had been at the mercy of the politicians to help advance our lives because our democratic choices are limited and increasingly suppressed, this includes providing us with the avenues for us to access any forms of education there is. But now, it seems we are back to square one. In light of this, I couldn’t help thinking of how true it is when Assata Shakur said, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.” There are also multiple instances proving that books and literacy are some of the authoritarian governments’ worst fears.

I returned to re-reading Alexander Chee’s book of essays (see Status Board below) in light of my political burnout. In one of his essays, his yoga teacher asked the whole class, “What can you trust of what you can’t see?”. At this moment, what can we trust of what we can’t see?

Writers writing on how to write when the world is falling apart:

  • “This was the volume I turned to the most during the horrors of the Bush and Cheney years. Even though around the same time my own belief in God had faded away, I found that I needed to somehow retain belief in a cloud of witnesses. I had strayed away from religious dogma, but my hunger for miracle speech had not abated. Tranströmer’s mysterious poems, hovering on the edge of the unsayable, met me right at this point of need.” Teju Cole finding solace in the poems of Tomas Tranströmer’s.
  • “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal.” Toni Morrison on choosing not to remain silent.
  • “Strange as it sounds, this finally explains my need to go to the rose garden after the election. What is missing from that surreal and terrifying torrent of information and virtuality is any regard, any place, for the human animal, situated as she is in time and in a physical environment with other human and nonhuman entities. It turns out that groundedness requires actual groundedness, in the ground.” Jenny Odell on how to do nothing.
  • “”The question I was thinking about in this book,” she told me, “was, Can you still just tend your own garden once you know about the fire outside its walls?”” Jenny Offill on how to write a fiction when the planet is falling apart.
  • “Paul Goodman famously wrote, “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!” It’s an argument for tiny and temporary victories, and for the possibility of partial victories in the absence or even the impossibility of total victories.” Rebecca Solnit on embracing hope while living in dark times.
  • “I have new lessons in not stopping, after the election. If you are reading this, and you’re a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes—and make no mistake, it is already here—be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there?” Alexander Chee urging us to keep writing, despite everything.

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: I returned to re-reading a chapter from Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiography Novel every night before bed. In his book, he asked, “Isn’t beauty strong?” In all of his beautiful words in the book, yes, yes it is, Alexander. Thank you for writing such a powerful and honest book.
  • Listening: I found myself veering towards piano sounds these days. Now listening to Sylvain Chauveau, a French composer based in Brussels. With moving, minimal pieces for piano, strings, guitar, and synth, his work is an embodiment of contemplation and retrospection. Thank you Flow State for the recommendation.
  • Viewing: He failed the service dog exam, but he’s still the goodest boi ever.
  • Food & Drinks: Sizzling yee mee, and boba.

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