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Artwork by Kitty Liu

Where can we begin but a lack of clarity?

In the pause there is a sensation of a pen pressed against a page, watching ink bleed through to punch a hole in the table. There is a weight to writing, a feeling of committing reality in a way the dissipating notes of speech do not. Here, the pen dips.

About fifty years ago, Barthes wrote that “the West moistens everything with meaning”, and this I feel like a forced baptism’s cold water slipping down the back of my skull.

In the past year, I started snatching such phrases to wedge between the beams of my ceiling, like they might help me make sense of a life built on the soil baked into my home city. As if those loose sparrow thoughts could together say what I couldn’t, to put into words the feeling of people smiling in your face like your body’s a map, tracing a path over the braille of your rib and dragging their fingers through the currents that douse you in second skin; a performing monkey of Chinese potential, reassuring that there might still be a current to bring us out West.

Sometimes the soul escapes, and there’s always a sharp sting of betrayal when you don’t find it where it’s meant to be. The temperature began to trip down and I started feeling more and more like a metaphor, an essentialised Chineseness that began only in 1945, that disregards three or four whole histories and papers over the complexity of being born in Hong Kong with an earful of the American dream. I feel like a metaphor, but how do I say this without sounding insane? In search for a new language I crack open Minor Feelings, where Cathy Park Hong tells me that if you knock on English enough it becomes a door to another language, which maybe is exactly what I need a knock-on English that forces lateral moves through a new door, to a place where I can replace their sense-making with mine.

I feel like a metaphor, and in thinking of why exactly that is I’m brought back to an Oxford night in Zia Haider Rahman’s only novel, watching father and son talk about metaphors as stories sent through the super distillation of imagination. ‘The day someone thought of calling pigeons flying rats was the day the fate of pigeons was sealed’, he writes, because it is their form that makes metaphors dangerous. In bridging a known and an unknown they must fuse the known with the lens of another, presenting that sum total as if it equated the unknown, as if the energy was not lost to heat in the act of transformation.

In a cold New York winter, Maira Kalman writes ‘I have many questions but no patience to think things through.’ There isn’t enough time. Not enough time, and the sound of this rings through my head in concentric circles until thought bleeds into thought. My friends say that writing gives you clarity and maybe I should try it to stop myself going nuts because it does, it drives me mad, that the curl of water around my wrist as I write this means I’ve started looking at myself with an essentialist eye, with it enclosing me as the shore encloses it. Minority identity definable only against the hard edges of the norm. The real papered over, filling glue in my mouth.

Somewhere earlier in the book they name-drop Confucius, who says ‘to name things correctly is the beginning of wisdom’. The stroke of one brush cannot produce two characters, and for a moment I hold this lens between my fingers, panned fresh from the bald heat of the gold rush.

The soul has escaped, but I swore I found it that one night, a funhouse reflection of myself flickering in the eyes of the drunk boy I’m helping home. Two-thirds a Geryon, the feeling of buckling under the weight of his arm, the two of us separated by just an accident of diaspora. Stop thinking about home, he slurs. He is drunk and resentful, and the back of my mind raises its wary hackles under the weight of his gaze, a trickle of wet winding down the side of my neck because there’s no language to pinpoint the minor feelings that hide under those major keys, dripping slow in an oiled shame down the cavern of my chest. Home is in me, and the wetness in my veins shoots behind my eyes to drive its hard little roots in my body. Not a body but an embassy. Not an embassy but home soil. Home soil, shifting like oil over this place. My feet don’t touch the ground and I wonder if he feels it too under the allergy of that familiar flush, the air of Huangshan tight against his chest. Let’s get you home.

(Is this writing, spiralling closer and closer to a center that holds only because it will never be touched?) Clarity eludes me even now, and I don’t see clear water but the shelf of mud it sweeps up, running yellow through the halfway house that defines me despite calling only to a sixth note of my being. The bell tolls on excavation, and I am overwhelmed. What a murderous little world this is, with such a right way to name things.

I wonder if there’s an edge of humor to watching Barthes conjure Huineng[1] up as a defense against this fatal course of interpretation. ‘[If] someone interrogates you about non-being, answer with being’, he says, and I watch the new answer drop between the gears of signification. It jams the linguistic paradigm until the walls shudder and fall flat, the language passing through a mandolin and shedding layers of meaning for a lamination of symbols. The ground is full of pieces, shaken loose from a year into my degree, and I try to write my way to a moment they come together before the seeing stone bent between my second finger and my thumb. In this flatness they become inseparable, an assemblage so entangled that any attempt to observe them makes a cut that severs it from the whole. (What is the hole, and from what is it made?) Exhale into a reality where we can never understand reality in full. Our minds descend on reality like Moss’ liminal fork over a plateful of food, a slow course where nothing can be possessed in its entirety.

From these roots we might arrive at the work of Trinh T. Minh-ha, who says the impossibility of understanding in full means we should dissolve any authority to speak on it as a whole. Without the ability to speak on, and we should aim instead to speak nearby, maintaining a gap between us and the subject for an interval of uncertainty, a particular pause that allows for slippage. A space for other voices and the collapse of fixed reality.

‘Although text is thought it does not think,’ writes Ocean Vuong in a series of Instagram stories he’s pinned to loop forever on his page. Against this new impermanence of reality, metaphor can no longer bridge fixed quantities with another. Without a singular real to distort, it can only juxtapose two elements until a new image ripples between, the text that was fossil peeling off to see and re-see. Here, it is all horizontal, a row of streams meeting in the swell of clear water. Here is the shortest way home. Sometimes to name something precisely is to make the brushstroke of error; to write two characters with one stroke. Who else but metaphor to appreciate the dissonance of spatial collapse?

As in: I am standing knee deep in the river, pants rolled to my knees, the tines of the liminal fork passing through the tip of my skull. At the seam of the world the water sprays, and I watch the sun stream through it to bifurcate, splintering in shards of what might/could/should have been. The air is covered in fractals, all running fragments with no absolute meaning, branching out so far that the ends sag and drape gently around me like green mesh off of bamboo. At the seam of the world there is mud on my toes.

Outside, the rhythm of the spring wind disappears. Through a paper screen eyes watch twigs move in the wind. I hear the water gurgle from its mouth, before it comes down the Bayan Har and washes with mud. Still clear.

[1] Huineng - 惠能 - The Sixth Ancestor of Chan Buddhism (禪宗六祖).


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