Ysabelle Cheung connects apocalyptic narratives and reality TV, bookstore closures and writing workshops, fear and death and community and more.
Part of the And We Begin Again series—writing from a year-long reading group on community, translation, and getting unstuck.
Author’s Note: The images interwoven in this text provide a complementary, perhaps more temporal, scrolling narrative of the Asia Art Archive writing workshop. Spanning a year, they comprise a pleasantly mundane archive of our Whatsapp group, which mostly consists of us asking each other for directions, arranging our schedules for meetups, emojis, sending promotional material for our day jobs, and spontaneous follow ups of in-person conversations.
It is February, and The Last of Us is streaming. Once a week, W and I wait anxiously for a new episode of the show, which features a smuggler, Joel, and a young girl, Ellie, on a journey across a deserted American landscape populated with the “infected”—people who have succumbed to a sentient cordyceps network, and who roam ghost cities and towns feeding on live flesh.
The credits roll, and in the lull we switch over to Survivor: a soapy, long-running reality show in which contestants must compete with and charm each other to avoid being voted off. Lasting thirty-nine days, the event begins with contestants being dropped onto a desert island; among other tasks, they must build shelter and make fire. Unlike other shows of a similar genre, however, the crucial tension within Survivor is not between humanity and the great outdoors. Instead, narrative conflict is manifested through strategic and brutal psychological warfare. Tribes—as camps of people are called on this show—are broken apart, alliances betrayed (“you promised me on your mother’s grave” is a common tear-filled refrain), as the contestants vote each other off and vie for the million-dollar prize.
At its core, both shows feature groups of people thrown together in hostile circumstances. Whereas Joel and Ellie move forward amongst fungal zombies, a trigger-happy military regime, and chaotic anarchy—making morally questionable choices along the way—the competitors on Survivor navigate a whole new social order that reconfigures itself dramatically each time a person leaves the island.
The logic of my addiction to both apocalyptic narratives and reality television is rooted in an intense fascination with the fallibility of human nature. It reminds me that empathy is conditional; that feelings of belonging do not exist without its shadow, loneliness; that community is something fragile, inconclusive, perhaps even useless at times. And yet we continue to strive to find one another, to form bonds (and ultimately break them), to invite vulnerability to the table, to commit to one another in small and large ways. It feels good to share food and to sit in half-darkened chambers together, venting about how we spend some of our days: unsatisfied, burdened, grief-stricken, overworked. Lonely.
* * *
In the very first session of the Asia Art Archive writing workshop, Paul showed us a clip of the Ryusuke Hamaguchi film Drive My Car, in which an acclaimed director attempts to bring to life Chekhov’s melancholy Uncle Vanya while grieving his deceased wife. In the clip, we watched actors in a table read, each reciting their lines in their mother tongues, including Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog, sign. Later, Paul sent some notes over email.
the characters didn’t even speak the same language, or would share car rides without speaking much of anything to each other, yet still managed to meaningfully connect—but…like…how?
For that first session, we met in the new Asia Art Archive library, stomachs round from an earlier meal of Korean kimbap and fried chicken. We are surrounded by catalogues, zines, gigantic tomes, essays, small fragments of texts that were worked on by hundreds, if not thousands, of different artists, curators, and scholars. Christine mentions she is interested in food and recipes as a language of sharing—the way we can immediately conjure a memory from the past or even a person with just a few ingredients. We’re together, eating, talking, blinking, tentatively laughing at earnest jokes that will take us time to understand.
Paul offers me some chocolate, but Özge reaches for it first, in a great hurry. She is gently scolded, and the laughter doesn’t end for a while. There is something endearing about the moment. Someone has let their guard down first. Soon we resume to quieter conversation, we wait patiently in turn for someone to speak, we eat some more chocolate. There is silence at times as we adjust to the temperature of our group, and I experience that familiar out-of-body sensation that comes with intense social awkwardness. And yet.
* * *
In between sessions four and five, a giant earthquake hits Turkey and Syria. I reach out to Özge and we talk about it a little. I am always afraid of sounding insensitive or glib in these situations—I used to hate it when international friends would ask and how is the political situation in Hong Kong?—but concern overrides that fear.
Fear. That’s something else.
In Drive my Car, fear—and death—lingers. The first act of the film reveals the director’s wife’s infidelity, then her sudden death. The cast and crew are performing Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, which was largely destroyed by an atomic bomb during the Pacific War. A gun appears several times in the play.
Fear appears and is only tempered—briefly—by connection. Bruce, who works at an art space that was formerly a textiles factory, shows us a book on patterns, weaves, and the social life of fabric—almost biographical in its descriptions of how certain textiles are structured. “Thread, when left to its own devices, tends towards chaos,” writes the author, Emily Frances Winter. “To tension those threads and sequence them into a cloth is to create order and meaning from disorder, to organize raw material into form.”
To write is to create a certain type of order, a weave in which you decide whether to go up or under, constructing a texture flat or sculptural. Successful writing does this well—we enjoy and use the fabric, and if we choose to, unpick it to its bare connecting threads, marveling at how such simple and repetitive actions could produce such complicated narratives. Form often reigns here. But in life, chaos always creeps in—fear is inevitable, and perhaps productive in its existence.
How can we allow ourselves to weave and to connect, to linger and to wander? How to be both?
* * *
Before each session, we are all sent a set of readings by a member of the group. For our second session, Sam sends, among others, an essay by Anthony Veasna So, “Baby Yeah.”
I would often order books via the bookstore I used to work at in San Po Kong. A few weeks before the store closed, in September 2021, my copy of Veasna So’s short story collection, Afterparties, arrived.
“Last order,” my boss said as he carefully, sadly, opened the boxes. The smell of new books enclosed the shop with possibility. Later that month, instead of placing orders to replace the gaps in the shelves, we began to clear chunks, and then whole bodies, of books. People took away chairs, tables, lamps, the bookshelves. The posters came down. The boxes of comics near the children’s corner left. The bean bags vanished. It was like moving house. For years you live in a place—you inhabit it deeply, soaking it with your smell, texturing it with your life. Then, one day, you move, and suddenly the place is filled with cardboard, and then almost as quickly it is empty.
For some reason, I always have a hard time remembering a space when it is full. I always remember it in its last moments: empty, bleached in loss.
Earlier that year, I attended Tin House writer’s workshop virtually. On the first day, the director had taken five minutes silence to remember Veasna So, who had been at the same workshop just a year prior. When I clicked on his bio on the Tin House website, I saw that it was written by India Downes Le-Guin, then assistant director of the workshop. India, as my workshop classmates and I had giddily discovered, is the granddaughter of Ursula K Le Guin, whose essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” is foundational to my gallery space.
Why all these connections? Perhaps I’m trying to demonstrate that you can almost always connect one thing to another, but that doesn’t mean it is at all profound, enlightening, or even interesting. In these connections, I make my own linear-temporal narrative.
My logical self tells me it is the function of survival, to tell ourselves stories by “stepping out of time,” as Sam also suggests via a text by José Esteban Muñoz. But what use are all these games of six degrees, really—when the world is burning, buildings collapsing, communities being ripped apart?
* * *
Communities begin, and then they end. I think as children, we all recognise this—no one goes to school forever—but as we grow older, we start to fantasize about things that last.
Our next meeting will take place in San Po Kong, in a location chosen by Bruce. I looked up the address on Google Maps; it’s only a five-minute walk from the old bookstore, and my head already hurts thinking about the giant rubbly construction sites and tarp that landmarked the route I used to take. Back before it was announced that the bookstore was closed, before my boss told me he was going to move back to America, before this Asia Art Archive workshop, I had thought that I could walk down that dusty path forever, because at the very end there was a small bookstore that represented a powerful constancy. What could be more solid, more real, more permanent, than wooden bookshelves, the solar-powered calculator we used at the checkout counter, the blinds I pulled open at the start of each workday, the penciled prices on the inside flaps of the books, the pages and papers that lined the space? I had thought perhaps it would last forever.
Soon enough, these workshop sessions will become a memory tethered together on a single plane. As time seems to rush ahead, I feel anxious about the ending, wanting to understand more: and yet and yet and yet. Perhaps I am looking for, as described by bell hooks in a text sent by Christine, “a politicization of memory that distinguishes nostalgia, that longing for something to be as it once was, a kind of useless act, from that remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present.” (Another no-meaning connection: bell hooks mentions Toni Morrison’s Beloved at the front of the essay; I lent that book to Özge but had to take it back to send it to a young girl in prison who had been looking for an unmarked copy.)
We came back for something else, although coming back every time brought us closer to that finite ending. We offered the freedom to slip and slide in and out of time, to wander in our ruminations, but only within a framework where our schedules matched, where we were who we were in those weeks, those months. We expressed ourselves in our own personal languages, stating connections that perhaps had no real meaning—other than to share. We ended it all anyway.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
Ysabelle Cheung is a writer and editor based in Hong Kong. Her fiction writing has appeared in Granta, Catapult, Slate, and The Rumpus. Her short story “Please, Get Out and Dance,” published in The Margins (AAWW), was nominated for the 2022 Pushcart Prize. She was awarded the 2021 Nebula Awards SFWA conference scholarship, the 2023 Aspen Words fellowship, and is an alumni of Tin House Workshop. Her essays and cultural criticism have appeared in The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artforum, and Literary Hub, among others. She is co-founder of the contemporary art gallery Property Holdings Development Group.
Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee.
- Fri, 13 Oct 2023