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Footnote #5: amid the wreck
pull the kitchen table out to the lawn, roll out the rug the stereo's on
There are about twelve more hours left to the year, and I find myself a little unable to comprehend the totality of it against our collective small-ness. So much has happened, so little has gone on as they were meant to, and there is a middle place in it, I’m sure. This may be the first end-year piece you read, or maybe it is the fiftieth. Whatever the number, I am grateful for your attention, for your time.
I started writing this letter in May 2020. In between then and now, there have been three other editions, so you’ll see that my tally for the year numbers five, including this one. I am by no means a prolific writer, but I am a speedy one; it just takes a little to hook my attention.
As I write this, I am thinking of love.
I think about love quite a lot, in case it was not glaringly obvious by this point—this year has been a year of heartache. At dinner, days before, a close friend told me she didn’t find it useful to think of years in terms of resolutions, but in thematic arcs. Someone else, in a separate conversation, told me she was thinking about having a sexual chapter in the year of our lord twenty-twenty-one. Looking back for myself, 2019 was a year themed by heartbreak, and 2020 was heartache—what other name for the simmering, low-level thrum of not-quite-pain that’s been our only constant?
Image description: The Death tarot card, original illustration by Pamela Colman Smith. A skeletal knight in black armour marches forward on a white horse, bearing a flag emblazoned with a white Tudor rose against a colourless field. Beneath him are the remains of the dead, before him the soon-to-be-dead. In the distance, despite it all, the sun rises.
I don’t mind it too much. Going over the lessons of this difficult year, I’ve been thinking a lot about love (as I mentioned), particularly in relation to disappointment. I have thought a lot about all the ways in which we do our damnedest to avoid feeling disappointment, and/or causing disappointment. And it occurs to me, as I circle the topic, that there isn’t really a way to do that, and maybe we need to reorient how we think about disappointment.
Disappointment isn’t something you can avoid. Its contours play out across our lives, deepening hurt and festering wounds. In some ways, ignoring it makes it worse. Unacknowledged, disappointment becomes cruelty becomes harm becomes and becomes. Disappointment is a wage of living, it is a cost of love. Which is why disappointment is a thing meant to be endured, coped with, used and parlayed with, in the hopes we might minimise the damage we inevitably wreak on each other. It is a tool that might teach us to be accountable to each other, to wish for more for those outside ourselves. We cannot outrun disappointment, but we can love each other better through it. We can see it as part of this pact we’ve made to to be in community with those around us. I wrote back in June that we belong to each other. It still feels true.
That’s a lesson only 2020—its syllabus laid amidst the dirt and the strewn bodies of the dead—could have taught us.
I was thinking about love in relation to “Hotel California”, the first short story I’ve ever seen published, and the small but gratifying reception it has received. I’ve other thoughts about the state of fiction in Malaysia, but that’s for another time—I want to talk a bit about how we think about love and its cost.
A common response I’ve gotten directly—and indirectly through social media—has been the myriad stories of broken marriages that have emerged, and the avowals to never give up their lives to marry a Muslim and invite the state into their beds. That it’s just not worth it.
I’m not surprised these accounts exist, I’ve seen variations on the theme throughout my life, but maybe I was surprised a bit by the absolutist nature of some of the responses. I have an absolutist personality myself, so maybe this a bit rich coming from me, but I suppose it was odd how some readers didn’t necessarily see the narrator as having agency. In fact, they often ignore the fact that the last, most important choice was hers, no matter how foolish we might think it.
In a lot of fiction, we tend to strip women of their agency, whether or not they exercise it within the bounds of narrative. Maybe their agency isn’t Katniss Everdeen-like enough; maybe it doesn’t look like throwing off a hijab; maybe it’s not even choosing what you’ll bring into your nuptial home. But I think we need a more expansive idea of what agency, especially female agency, looks like. It is could be as simple as making your own mistakes. Choosing your own downfall. Cressida choosing Troilus then choosing Diomede, effectively choosing her own destruction.
The state has too much power in Muslim marriages (all marriages), that is clear enough.
But I also think, as I was writing the story, I was thinking about the choices we make to love despite the odds. You might say I am too much of a romantic, and yes, I do have that luxury—but I think about the women in my life who have made the choice to marry men who will and will not love them through bureaucracy and opposition. Who have chosen the thorny, narrow path. Truthfully, the path I would not choose for myself.
There is something powerful in choosing that life for one’s self, and maybe there is a lesson about loss and hope somewhere in there. That close friend who gave that wisdom about year ends offered another charm for the road: that the most difficult lesson is remaining hopeful despite the bitterness continually served up by life. To keep trying.
Image Description: Two young women, facing away from the camera, look out over a lake, a small green islet and its crown of trees, and the white ducks swimming, heedless. Between them, a feast; above, the bluest sky imaginable. One of them points ahead, both eat apam balik. You cannot see the storm threatening to break behind the cameraman, a dear friend. It is the day before New Year’s Eve 2020.
I think about my narrator, and I think about the other women in her life (the other women in my life) and I think what I want to focus on as we move forward is the hope. That’s not to say we should ignore the very real shadow of a life where your marriage’s success is contingent on unfair policies, on cruelty and exclusion and the inevitable pressure of misogyny—but maybe part of this is a lesson about disappointment. An example of one way a life can be lived, successfully or not. Maybe the narrator’s marriage will fail and she will divorce. Maybe that will embitter her. Maybe it will be one door—full of all the things you wanted for yourself—closing, just as another opens.
But maybe she will wake up one day, full of discontent and the knowledge that it is hers. That she will still toast bread for her unworthy husband, love him well through it, be angry with him and wish for it to be better—but returning again and again to herself, to this life she has helped create.
I think about it as a lesson in how to love well. I was raised Christian, and the old habits die hard, so I believe love faces the world. Love is an outward thing, not something to gratify the ego (though that is undeniably there as well). It’s about knowing that empathy isn’t about ourselves, but about knowing our desires, goals & appetites, and choosing to place them aside to care for someone else. Choosing not to say the things that will hurt someone, even if you know saying them may heal something inside you. Choosing to love someone through the wreckage, despite the wreckage.
In romance novel logic, the lesson is one about grasping a chance with both hands, for that brief glimmer of joy, even if you know it could all end terribly. We cannot outrun disappointment, but we don’t have to. Stop running. Sit. Eat. Love, despite.
Opening the door
I’ve had my heart broken so many times this year, in big ways and small ones. Odysseus arrived on a boat to the island of the Phaeacia, and then he left. The feast was interrupted by a deathless green knight wielding a gleaming sword and a fool’s errand. A plague swept through the prince’s palace, and the dancers kept whirling even as they choked to death. The screen glowed blue long after the moon pulled the clouds close. The texts get sent, go nowhere, are archived. The novel is still being written.
I could say a lot about 2020 being a disappointment, but I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth. This was the pause I’ve been silently begging for years; this was the first time I could devote many, many evenings to writing, and finally publishing them. I’ve read nearly 100 books. I did some good things at my professional job, but I also learned not to care that much about it. I’ve built a brand as a pub quizmaster, and I’ve started thinking about where I will take myself in the future. I’ve started dreaming about a life beyond this city of ghosts, though it makes me a bit sad.
It has been a good year by most accounts, even if the bad days very nearly outnumbered the good ones.
2019 was characterised by The Star for me, and maybe this year was the Seven of Cups. Illusions, false hopes, dreams, baseless and glittering things that you want with everything inside of you, so much that your stomach roils with it. I think (and don’t hold me to this) 2021 feels like Death. Unstoppable, terrifying, uncertain, hopeful.
On New Year’s Eve, I’ll be waking up early to edit this. I’ll have a pastry, a coffee, and I’ll watch the rich mums cart around their kids and yoga mats and package away croissants, and wait for my friend. I’ll go home, and then I’ll put on a beautiful dress of the most radiant blue and go see some art with a different friend. I’ll have dinner with my family, and then I’ll go to be with more friends as we pull cards, drink wine, blow smoke and say goodbye to a long, hard, bittersweet year. I’ll say goodbye to old loves and tend to the small, broken bits of my heart.
In 2021, I’m getting a new tattoo. I’m finishing my novel and starting a new one, in anticipation of fixing the first. I’m writing a play. I’m going to keep reading; my best friend and I are embarking on an ambitious journey to read the entirety of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years in lieu of Shakespearean plays (but we are still going to read Timon of Athens together). I’m working on learning more about my friends, and navigate the grief of losing some of them to work, marriage, distance, time. I’ll learn the contours of my disappointments and make friends with it. I’m going to keep writing. I’m going to keep trying to love my people better.
Thank you for sticking with me through it all. I love you.
Love to you from the void, always,
Sam. December 2020.