Writing from a year-long reading group on community, translation, and getting unstuck.
A call went out in July 2022 to gather for an in-person, monthly reading group—shortly after the COVID lockdowns had ended in Hong Kong. The prolonged “zero-COVID strategy” had been gruelling, and had led to—among other things—growing disconnection in, and mounting departures from, our city.
As the restrictions began to lift, the desire, so palpable then, was simply to reach out—to reconnect. To walk and eat and stretch and laugh together again. To catch-up with old friends and embrace new ones.
We started slow and kept it small. The reading group only consisted of a handful of people—Bruce Li, Christine Vicera, Ozge Ersoy, Paul C. Fermin, Sam Chan, and Ysabelle Cheung—to prioritise more focused attention and care. We met once a month, over the course of a year.
Some of us had worked together before, some had not—what united us was a shared bias towards substantive, meaningful relationality; the kind that emerges through consistent, generous interactions over time. There was also a desire to make sense of our confounding, if not infuriating, world-historical moment, hoping to be adequate to the task of facing it—and figuring out how to do that in our specific context, collectively.
Each of us also wanted to maintain our writing practices, and were open to experimenting with collaborative forms. Though intimate, the group had no desire to remain insular—there would be an attempt to write about, to somehow translate for others, our time together. Some of the examples/precedents that came to mind included the following:
• Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards's experiment in collective criticism, which took the form of correspondences to each other while discussing Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels (The Ferrante Letters)
• The statement authored by the Black feminists of the Combahee River Collective
• Alexis Pauline Gumbs' trilogy with Duke University Press, in which each book was written "after and with," e.g., M Archive was written "after and with" M. Jacqui Alexander
• Treviene A. Harris and Nozomi (Nakaganeku) Saito's essay "On the Limits of Institutional DEI Work," in which Saito wrote footnotes, side-by-side to Harris's text—inspired by the works of Richa Nagar’s feminist co-authoring and Kevin Adonis Browne’s critical footnoting
• The collectively authored book Re-Assembling Motherhood(s): On Radical Care and Collective Art as Feminist Practices, which came about from the Maternal Fantasies' feminist research and collective artistic practice on motherhood(s), care work, and representation in the arts
• Deleuze and Guattari's collaborative writing, about which Deleuze once commented: "Each of us functions like an incrustation or a citation in the other one's text, and then, after a while, we're not sure who is citing whom anymore. It's a sort of writing made up of variations." (As quoted by Frances McDonanld in "To Collaborate is to Become Entangled")
• The Wu-Tang Clan's "Triumph"
Over the course of our year together, we shared our attachments to a wide array of books and essays and films. For example, one month we'd be reading selections from bell hooks (shared by Christine) and Anthony Veasna So (shared by Sam); another month we'd be reading a short story by Mariana Enríquez (shared by Ysabelle); and then there was that month we read poems by Chika Sagawa (shared by Bruce). Many of the same themes recurred: translation, repetition, language, love, time, connection, struggle.
Where we met was also of significance. Our first session took place at Asia Art Archive’s newly remodelled library space. To kick things off, we saw a clip from Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car, before discussing June Jordan's "Report from the Bahamas, 1982" and Namwali Serpell and Maria Tumarkin's "Unethical Reading and the Limits of Empathy"—together, they outlined some of the stakes, pitfalls, and possibilities of collaboration.
Each time, a different group member would select our next meetup point, with the only requirement being a personal connection to the place—e.g., one night Ysabelle invited us to the gallery space she co-founded, Bruce invited us to his mother's workspace after office hours, though we never did get around to our picnic at Sam's favourite ocean-view promenade...
At some point we felt ready to begin writing, not necessarily about the different textures of our time together, but certainly informed and shaped by them—what we've learned, how we've shifted, what questions remain.
We wrote what would have been impossible to write had we never met.
Each piece was workshopped at one of our monthly gatherings, and the final drafts have been gathered, here, in this series. The title comes from an exquisite corpse exercise we did at our first meeting, in which the last sentence reads: "And we begin again."
Banner and cover illustrations: Jocelin Kee.