Letters #1: a beginning
thinking a lot about what we leave behind and a Friendship Experiment
The friendship between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell was one of those relationships where you could see the influence of the other on the work—they didn’t just edit each other’s poetic works, they discussed process, inspired each other, quote one another (problematic as both of them were). Elizabeth Bishop left behind thousands of pages of correspondence between herself and other folks, as did writers like Zelda Fitzgerald—was there ever a more delightful writer of letters—and Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and it’s all got me thinking about what we leave behind when we are gone. What evidence is left of the love and relationships that carried us through if we are all going tap-tap-tap on keys and someone blows up all the worlds’ servers? For me, not much is left beyond a mountain of receipts, a boxful of postcards and old love letters, & barely legible journal entries in unfinished notebooks. A wall covered in post-its will go the way of the bin.
I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I don’t believe much matters after death, but I do think a lot about what remains after we are gone. In Pompeii, they found an ancient snack stand and the remains of what the long-dead used to eat: Roman paella, wine-soaked fava beans, something that left behind bones of goats, pigs, and snails. There is something quite beautiful about a volcano destroying a civilisation but preserving a memory of food, and what’s more transient than food right?
This year is my Year of Friendship, the year I spend exploring my existing friendships, publicly and privately. I’ve talked a lot about the importance of friendships in my life—I’ve written whole tracts about it, you can read the one I did here for BEAUT 2019—and I wanted to try an experiment with this newsletter.
Every couple of weeks, I’ll be writing to my friend Al, who will write back in his After Tutup newsletter, which you can (and should!) subscribe to. Thanks to the latest lockdown—supported by that old Malaysian classic, Arbitrary Police Action—I haven’t seen Al in person for months now, and it’s made me think about what can substitute for in-person connection; can we reinvent it through open, honest communication? How did people pre-text messaging subsist on phone calls and weeks between letters?
I want this letter-experiment to be as much of an archive of mine and Al’s friendship, and perhaps a template for what a letter-writing friendship can look like. This is a format I started working with with my friend Weng, an art critic, and this project is also inspired by Sharon Chin’s recent Letters to What We Want project. I’m not a visual artist, so writing has always been my entry point to the 🌸 Art World🌸 . I’ve found it particularly generative format for thinking through problems, this response as medium.
Anyway, my letter is the first in our series, and for Al’s response, please subscribe to his newsletter at After Tutup. Al is thoughtful, one of the kindest souls I know, and is also searching through his own writing voice—I think you’re going to love what he has to say.
I’d actually love to hear what you, dear Reader, have to say about this format. What do you think about Response as Art? Do you miss your friends who live just beyond 10 kilometres from your house? How can we connect with each other in ways that can fill that massive gap that’s yawned wide between all of us? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.
As ever, please feel free to subscribe to this newsletter for more letters on Friendship, discursive thoughts on Malaysian life and socio-politics, and the occasional piece of fiction. It’s free and full of joy!
If you can think of someone else you know who would enjoy this sort of thing, do share it with them.
Until next time then, beloveds.
Yours, from the void,
Letters to Al #1: a beginning
I know I said I would get this to you a week ago, but in this panorama times, I’m afraid I’ve lost the plot a little bit. I’m finding myself inundated with work, with words, with looking for ways to fill in the pockets of time that have opened up like a sinkhole between me and the world. I’ve been feeling blessed because work has come in, and so have opportunities—but I don’t crave the work as much as I crave being in the world, being with people in a dissipated, distant way: in cafes, between bookshop shelves, idly chatting on the pavements.
But the work is here, and the work has value. Maybe this is just the internalised capitalism, but I think the world will pull us through until we’re right on the other side.
Did you know it’s been a little over three years since we properly met? I think by the time I arrived at the Burrow (rip) to interview you, we had been aware of each other for maybe six months, watching each other online like cats, unsure and certain all the same. And now we are friends in the truest sense, online and offline and the text-spaces in between.
And I think about how far we have come across the years—sometimes I feel like a completely different person.
Have you ever heard of the Ship of Theseus thought experiment? It comes from a Greek myth about the “hero” Theseus—I use parentheses because as far as shitty Greek heroes come, Theseus is pretty much at the bottom—who had a wooden ship, and over time, whenever the ship needed fixing, he would replace a piece of wood with metal. Gradually, the ship was just made of metal. The thought experiment that accompanies the story is, if the components of a thing that once made it a Thing are all changed, if the parts that once defined us have all been replaced with something else, is it still the same Thing?
They say that all the cells in our body are made new every seven years—every seven years, we’re someone new. It’s an odd thing to think, isn’t it? I am not who I was yesterday, definitely not who I used to be three years ago, seven years ago, a decade.
I bring all this up because of this conversational experiment that we’re embarking on—I messaged you a week or so about beginning to write to each other, publicly, in an effort to get to know one another. I think back to the Al I met three years before, and the Al I know now, and it’s both a marvel to know you and discover that there are still so many things I don’t know about you.
There are a lot of things you don’t know about me.
A friend recently said that she doesn’t think things like new year resolutions as helpful—Jessica Dore, the prophet among us, also says that lunar cycles are better for her because it’s a more regular exchange and exploration. Themes, my friend said, are better. So I decided to call 2021 the Year of Friendship, an adventure in discovering the people in my life who have remained constant, despite the wreck of the last 12 months.
So Al, how have you been?
With love always,
Al has responded in his newsletter, which you can read here.