LIKE A FEVER

with you, in open light

Sam Chan writes about meaningful trouble, how to begin, and condensing fury till it is flame.

Part of the And We Begin Again series—writing from a year-long reading group on community, translation, and getting unstuck.

 

 

the first few months of being back in hong kong felt like driving through haze. i wasn’t sure whether i would stay home after graduation—whatever home means at this point—so i applied for several internships, mostly to keep me from falling face flat into the self-fulfilling prophecy of yet another art history grad with no job. a couple weeks later, an email from asia art archive landed in my inbox.

i showed up twenty minutes early to my interview, fake-read ocean vuong’s time is mother (first impressions, hello), then met a guy named paul who offered me the prospect of a full-time job.

two weeks and another interview later, i’m at my new desk job, sitting diagonally behind paul. another two weeks slip by, and i’ve already grown used to the way paul swivels his chair, then proceeds to ask a series of get-to-know-you questions—some arbitrary (what’s your take on drizzy?), some intensely earnest (how did you become?), then some in between: hey, there’s this reading group thingy and someone’s gone totally mia. would you like to join?

 


i’m at the first reading group session, introducing myself as “aaa’s communications assistant” to the non-aaa folks: bruce, ysabelle, and christine. somebody asks me for my name. the ac whirrs in the back, and i’m trying to fill the silence—or justify my existence? i’ve just been working at aaa for a month, thanks for letting me be here.

as a way to accelerate our slow warmth, we begin freewriting to prompts at the start of each following session. i unfurl a paper slip: how do you begin?

the possibilities are endless. you begin with an act—how, not a place—where. how do you begin is also how do you live? how do you become? how…

i scribble down some impromptu mess in response: “i’d throw a bomb into the ocean, watch the waves erupt. i’m alone on a raft, not knowing how long it would take or if i’d ever reach land.”

 

 

somewhere in my subconscious, an opening act of destruction emerges. i did not—could not yet—acknowledge the bomb’s intrinsicness. because when you’re driving through the haze, you can forget that you’re in the driver’s seat entirely, something like being on autopilot. in this state, ideas, desires, fears are incoming, never your own.

 

*   *   *

 

i had just watched fight club a week ago, meaning it must’ve been how the bomb found its way into my mind and on paper. the film is replete with bombs—literal, symbolic, many embodying both. its protagonist jack (edward norton), never directly referred to by name, drudges through his vapid job. at his nadir, he meets tyler durden (brad pitt), an eccentric soap salesman who we later learn is his alter ego. this encounter triggers a cascade of explosions—jack’s condo literally explodes; he throws his first punch; fight club begins to take form; fight club evolves into project mayhem; project mayhem detonates credit card companies; the debt record implodes.

the bombs in fight club are meant to cause meaningful trouble, to address the film’s urgent and central questions—are you sleepwalking through life? how do you wake up? yet the adrenaline from my first watch quickly dissipated. the questions still lingered, and neither jack nor his fight club was the answer.

perhaps it is only fitting that jack loses consciousness in moments that demand it the most. in a near death/life experience on the freeway, jack is asked to decide his level of involvement in project mayhem. in a frantic attempt to prove his commitment, jack lets go of the wheel and steers into the opposing lane, indicating an abdication of his old ways. while the ultimate crash functions to imply some kind of rebirth, it eludes accountability with a pretence of metaphor. it is to no surprise then, that when jack wakes up from a coma, he is completely lost as to how the project became organised, what purpose vandalising property serves, and why his participation matters at all. we’re still left wondering—how and why is jack involved?

 

jack moments before the car crash in <i>fight club</i>.
jack moments before the car crash in fight club.

 

as the corporate headquarters collapse in the background at the film’s end, jack allays his shocked girlfriend marla: “you met me at a very strange time in my life.”

i wonder how the film’s trajectory might differ if jack were to mobilise his strangeness into an act of self-description rather than a character diagnosis.1 maybe he would finally stop being a stranger to himself; maybe his deep furrow would finally loosen; maybe his friendships would feel more substantial; maybe the first rule of fight club would be to ask questions—what are your stakes? why do you fight, and for what?

 

*   *   *

 

it’s been a year since the reading group started; since an mia vacancy gave me the chance to meet with five people every month. i suppose it’s also been a strange time in my life, where many firsts have occurred—first desk job, first year out of school, first feelings of rootedness. since the age of fourteen, i have lived in a new room every year. paper boxes from home depot were never discarded, tucked under my bed and saved for next year’s move. moving so frequently made me pretty good at fabricating a feeling of home. and somewhere down the line, the semblance of a fresh start camouflaged my stuckness. this year also marks the first end to that anticipatory routine, unearthing a long-buried question—the very same one written on that slip of paper—how do you begin?

 

*   *   *

 

i often find myself confronted with this question, one instance being the reading group—there was no set agenda, no set readings, no set gathering date. we had no idea how to begin, but we did anyway, sharing readings that held personal significance. i brought in josé estaban muñoz’s cruising utopia. im a sucker for writing that comes to life with music, and the book’s closing chapter “take ecstasy with me” does just that—not only is its title taken from a song by the indie pop band magnetic fields, it also transports you to an expansive futurity through the song’s queer rhythms. let’s step out, muñoz bids, “vacate the here and now for the then and there.”2

suddenly, i feel like i’m back at a college seminar. discussions about collective potentiality, queer time and space arise and intensify. during a lull, somebody asks, “how do we get there?” the class stares blankly, the discussion dissipates. i’m disappointed but i get it; it’s a question that’s been asked and attempted by so many, and not really one that would come to fruition in a classroom that has “diversity, equity, and inclusion” printed on its front door.

now, at the aaa library, i’m that somebody asking the question. i catch bruce’s gaze. something feels different; we’re holding onto the question like our life depends on it.

 

*   *   *

 

this is how i want to begin, here and now with you—can we put this bomb into motion, ride the waves of this ocean;

can we
sow the wind?
can we
condense fury till it is
flame
can we use this fuel
to move us out of here

                    a flying leap

to another “plane” or “sphere”
& I don’t know into what, don’t ask, only
I know it won’t be worse.

—Diane di Prima, Revolutionary Letter #71

condense fury till it is flame—that’s the space of the bomb’s making. this space is mantle, this space is obsidian. it is heat of a different kind, dark and opaque like the surging ocean at the dead of night.

 

belcher’s bay, kennedy town, hong kong.
belcher’s bay, kennedy town, hong kong.

 

*   *   *

 

cauleen smith’s volcano manifesto offers one of the most moving blueprints of this space. she opens with a profound knowing of a self in solidarity: “when their world breaks, i hope i am among those who are blamed for it.”3 hers is a sacred trust in her bomb(ing)s. elucidating what constitutes this trust, she writes: “we hang out, we talk, we study, we struggle, we love. we do the stuff that costs us instead of pays us because it feels good. because it’s what we’d rather do. because it undermines our isolation. because it loosens the harnesses. because it melts away cruelty.4 i’m drawn to smith’s use of “melt”—to make or become liquefied by heat; to make or become more tender or loving.

here are some moments of melting i remember from the reading group—bruce recounting how a difficult start with his dog taught him to relent control; christine sharing her personal notes in the margins of bell hooks’ very essay “choosing the margin as a space of radical openness;” özge allowing us to embrace her grief after a devastating earthquake hit her hometown, turkey; ysabelle inviting us into her gallery which took her backbreaking work to renovate; and paul, there is no beginning or end with that mf.

this reading group has held me in all my strangeness. it has held witness and power to this year’s shifts, among them, one from abstract stuckness to clarifying action. the chasm between that college seminar question and its answers, between the here and now and the then and there, feel abundant with possibility. somehow, the absence of language like “dismantling systems,” “queering heteropatriarchy” (essentially, words you’d find co-opted in a bombastic exhibition text) opened up spaces to make meaning within and beyond our group. speaking in terms that i can scale with and understand intimately is another kind of freedom. drop the script—abolition necessitates creativity; deconstruction is inventive or it is nothing at all.5

for the first time—or maybe what feels like the first in lifetimes of making—i’m articulating my involvement, desires, demands:

can you sit with me at belcher’s tonight?
i want to start co-writing with you, about brotherhood and anime and basketball and radical aesthetics.
we need to fight for a living wage.
i want to move out.
let’s open a cafe/bookstore. we can make it a bar/organising space at night.

i’m choosing to leave most of what’s been said unspoken here. i want to keep them between us.

 

Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth's inside 
Take my word for jewel in your open light.

Audre Lorde, "Coal"

 

 

blake garden courts, sheung wan, hong kong.
blake garden courts, sheung wan, hong kong.

 

 

 

sam chan is thinking about blueprints and being in trouble. they are also Asia Art Archive's Communications Associate.

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 

 

 

Notes

1. Sara Ahmed, “Being in Trouble: In the Company of Judith Butler,” Lambda Nordica, 2-3 (2015), 187.

2. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 10th Anniversary Edition: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York University Press (2019), 185.

3. Cauleen Smith, Volcano Manifesto (Printed Matter, 2022), 7.

4. Smith, Volcano Manifesto, 7.

5. Jacques Derrida, Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Vol. 1 (Stanford University Press, 2007), 23.

 

Imprint

Author

Sam CHAN

Topic
Essays
Date
Fri, 13 Oct 2023
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